Guests: Eric Brunstad, Lynne Gold-Bikin, Larry Kobilinsky, Davidson Goldin, Clint Van Zandt, B.J. Bernstein, Jonna Spilbor, Natalie Oliveros
DAN ABRAMS, HOST: Coming up, Anna Nicole Smith adds some spice to Washington, fighting at the U.S. Supreme Court for millions from her now-deceased 90-year-old husband.
ABRAMS (voice-over): Former model and reality show vixen turns heads at the usually solemn courthouse. And from the questions the justices were asking, many now believe Anna could be right when she said I‘m not rich, but I‘m going to be.
And a graduate student studying criminal justice in New York tortured, raped, and murdered, her body found by the side of the road. Her hands and feet bound, her head wrapped in duct tape. The police appear stumped.
Plus, an Atlanta socialite on trial for hiring a hit man to kill his wife, prosecutors say he was trying to divorce her and didn‘t want to pay.
The program about justice starts now.
ABRAMS: Hi everyone. First up on the docket, I never would have thought I‘d be using the words Anna Nicole Smith and United States Supreme Court in the same sentence ever. But here we are, and there she was. The former “Playboy” playmate of the year, reality TV star, and now spokesperson for a weight loss drug at the Supreme Court today trying to get millions from the estate of her ex-husband, billionaire J. Howard Marshall who died when he was 90.
She even had the Bush administration solicitor general arguing on her side. Since he died 10 years ago, Anna Nicole and his son Pierce have been duking it out in various courts. Here‘s the issue. Pierce took the case to a Texas state court, which effectively ruled Anna Nicole was an undeserving gold digger and actually ordered her to pay over $1 million in legal fees. She told the court back in 2001 it‘s just expensive being her.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How does one go about spending $5,000 a week in cash? What do you do with it?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I‘m a very—I don‘t know how to say this. I would go to premiers like every week. You have to buy a formal gown. I mean gowns are like—I mean you buy gowns, they are like $30,000, and you got to buy gowns, you got to buy shoes, you got to pay hair and makeup. I mean it‘s very expensive to be me. I mean, it‘s terrible, the things that I have to do to be me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: But a federal bankruptcy court in California prove maybe she didn‘t marry the man for nothing and awarded Anna Nicole what ended up being 88.6 million. Now, in 2004, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the lower court‘s ruling, saying that the state court ruling should stand. So remember, you‘ve got these two courts, one saying she gets nothing in state court, but the federal court saying she should get 88 million. So the technical legal issue is which court decision should apply? And that‘s going to determine ultimately who gets all the money.
MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell had the pleasure of being inside the courtroom today, and she joins us now. All right, Norah, we‘re going to talk law in a minute, but first describe for us a bit the spectacle of having Anna Nicole at the usually staid Supreme Court today.
NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was completely fascinating. I must tell you, it was my first time hearing a Supreme Court argument. And Anna Nicole Smith, of course, arrived at the Capitol dressed in black with her long bleach blond hair, of course, and her big sunglasses. And people were racing after her, photographers tripping over each other just to get a glimpse of her in her outfit.
You know normally she‘s not dressed the way she was dressed today. Some people remarked she looked like she was dressed for a funeral. She came in, sat quietly, and then the arguments got underway. And in fact, this former “Playboy” supermodel seemed to win over the Supremes today. And they seemed less interested in the technical issue of whether the state or federal court should decide will matters as they think that perhaps there was a lawsuit about damages.
I mean it‘s—this case is like a Texas soap opera. And in fact Justice Stephen Breyer said at one point it‘s quite a story. And it is quite a story. And what came out today and I thought was most fascinating watching was that in fact Justice Breyer mentioned the fact that in these briefs and what‘s come up is that three pages were inserted in the will after the older man, the old—the tycoon had signed the thing, and lawyers inserted these three pages after it was signed, that that was tortuous in some ways.
That‘s why Anna Nicole Smith originally won. Also Anna Nicole Smith‘s lawyer brought up today at the very end of the trial, it was like he dropped this big bombshell at the end that in fact there were pages that showed there were billing records that, in fact, Marshall had drawn up and asked his lawyers to draw up documents that would give her some money. But they, quote, unquote, “never saw the light of day”, indicating in fact that he did perhaps want to give her money.
So even though—she apparently cried twice during the hearing—she was very quiet in the back, but cried when his—her late husband‘s name was mentioned. She walked out very sort of sad and somberly. She took off her glasses when she walked out. But apparently and from what I heard, the majority of the justices seemed very sympathetic to her cause today and not that of Pierce Marshall, the son, who thinks he should be entitled to all the money.
ABRAMS: Let me ask you one follow-up question. And this is a somewhat technical legal question so you may not be entirely comfortable answering it. But did you see any...
O‘DONNELL: OK, thanks, Dan. I‘ll try and give it a shot.
ABRAMS: Did you see any of the justices sneaking a peek at her?
O‘DONNELL: No, I don‘t think so. I‘m not sure that many of these justices know who Anna Nicole Smith is. In fact, they referred to her as Vickie Marshall, which is her legal name.
O‘DONNELL: And she was seated in the back. But Justice Breyer and even Justice Souter at one point—Justice Souter said listen this is about a simple claim. She wants the money that was perhaps owed to her and so these largely men and one woman on the Supreme Court very sympathetic towards Anna Nicole Smith.
ABRAMS: Norah O‘Donnell thanks a lot. Appreciate it.
With me now is Eric Brunstad, an attorney for J. Howard Marshall‘s son, Pierce Marshall. He argued today‘s case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Thanks a lot for coming on the program. We appreciate it.
All right. So from everything that I‘m reading from the accounts and listening to Norah, it sounds like the justices were pretty sympathetic to Anna sitting there in that courtroom.
ERIC BRUNSTAD, ATTORNEY FOR E. PIERCE MARSHALL: Well, I don‘t know about that. I do think that they were asking a lot of rigorous questions and probing the issues. But the issue here is not about Anna at all. It‘s simply about which court gets to decide her essentially probate claim.
Now, there was a five and a half month jury trial. And at the conclusion of that trial, the probate judge decided conclusively that J. Howard never intended to give her this extra gift that she is claiming. Recall that during his life he gave her between six and $8 million and his estate plan was crystal clear she wasn‘t entitled to anything more.
ABRAMS: Well let me read this in response.
After Howard met Vickie—that‘s Howard the husband and Vickie—I like the sort of casual references—as how he met Vickie—he instructed his attorneys to create a separate trust for her benefit consisting of half the appreciation of his assets from the time of their marriage. Vickie never realized the benefits of that trust, however, because as both lower courts found, Pierce, your client, suppressed or destroyed the trust instrument and stripped Howard of his assets before his death.
BRUNSTAD: Those allegations are just that, allegations. In fact, all of the evidence introduced in both the federal and state trials demonstrated that there is no evidence to support them...
ABRAMS: Justice Breyer seemed to buy it though, didn‘t he?
BRUNSTAD: Well he was buying that as a hypothetical, assuming it to be true. Because as I pointed out in the argument today we went to great pains in the Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit of showing how those statements, there is no evidence to support them. So he acknowledged, yes, I mean assuming that it‘s true this is what her claim is. Because after all what we‘re talking about is who gets to decide her claim...
BRUNSTAD: ... not the merits of her claim, which is a completely separate issue. So all of those statements that she is making are false, but assuming they are true, then we have to decide who gets to decide.
ABRAMS: Here is Anna Nicole Smith‘s attorney outside of court today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KENT RICHLAND, ANNA NICOLE SMITH‘S ATTORNEY: The trial court found that there was genuine affection. And the trial court found that although this was an unusual relationship given the ages of the people, this was a woman who at the time they married was a world-famous model, and the district court found that she gave up many of the best years of her modeling life in order to be with J. Howard Marshall and that there was real affection.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Do you dispute that?
BRUNSTAD: Well, I don‘t really have any special information on what their affection was. I never actually saw them together. I do know that her claim that she is entitled to more than he actually gave her is completely without merit. It‘s not supported by any evidence. It‘s simply accusations. But that again is not the issue by—in front of the Supreme Court. It‘s not...
ABRAMS: No, but the reality is, though, that whatever the court rules will pretty much lay out whether Anna Nicole gets money or not.
BRUNSTAD: That‘s completely untrue.
BRUNSTAD: Because as the court itself recognized, we have these other arguments in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which bar her claim as well. And the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals only ruled on one of our arguments. Another argument that we have, for example, is that the Texas probate proceeding, which was concluded first...
BRUNSTAD: ... resolves completely the dispute, and she can‘t bring the same claim in federal court.
ABRAMS: Right. But my only point is that the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling—I mean look, if you win, she is not getting anything. If you lose, you‘re saying it‘s still possible she won‘t get anything, that that will be resolved. But there is no question, it seems that if you win and they say the Texas probate court decision applies, she is getting nothing, right?
BRUNSTAD: If we win, she gets nothing.
BRUNSTAD: If we lose, we have these other arguments she still gets nothing.
ABRAMS: Here is a little bit more of Anna Nicole during that initial case that we‘re talking about in the state court talking about her relationship.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He loved me (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ma‘am, how long...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My husband loved me...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought you didn‘t...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Pierce Marshall...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ma‘am...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... took my husband away from me...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... we‘re going to get...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... and let him die.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Do you want to respond to any of that or...
BRUNSTAD: Well, you know, there was this videotape that came out after the probate trial. It showed both J. Howard and Anna Nicole, Vickie Marshall, together and she was basically asking him what did you promise to give me? And he listed off a number of items and that was it. He actually gave her those things and my client Pierce actually facilitated those gifts being given to her. She is not entitled to anything more and there is no evidence to demonstrate that she is.
ABRAMS: Did you look at her in court today?
BRUNSTAD: I did not happen to see her in court today, no.
BRUNSTAD: I was focusing on what I was there to do.
ABRAMS: I know. I know. You know, I think it would be tough to be a lawyer in the Supreme Court and know Anna Nicole Smith is your opponent and not at least just sort of say oh, all right, there she is...
BRUNSTAD: I‘m sorry I missed her today.
ABRAMS: Eric Brunstad, thanks a lot for coming on the program. We appreciate it.
BRUNSTAD: Thank you.
ABRAMS: So will this case affect marriages, prenups, other cases like it? Joining me now is divorce attorney Lynne Gold-Bikin. Thanks a lot for coming on the program.
LYNNE GOLD-BIKIN, DIVORCE ATTORNEY: Pleasure.
ABRAMS: How important a case is it?
GOLD-BIKIN: I don‘t think it‘s important at all. When you get a case like this and something comes out of it, all of us in the field try to think what can we do in our own practices to make our clients safer? Prenuptial agreements are a good thing to do, and had he had one, it would have resolved the issue. Then there would have been no question about what he promised her. Most courts do not go along on he promised me. They want to see it in writing.
ABRAMS: Except that, you know there are some occasions when they‘ll say you know what, there is enough evidence to support the notion that he would have wanted her to have money. And in particular in this case where the court was ruling that the son may have been playing with the trust.
GOLD-BIKIN: Well, that‘s true, but let‘s get back to your first point was he would have wanted her to have money. Don‘t you think that $8 million is a pretty good sum for being married to a 90-year-old for a year?
ABRAMS: I don‘t know.
ABRAMS: I‘ll tell you...
ABRAMS: It‘d cost me a lot more than that to do it, but...
GOLD-BIKIN: Well maybe you‘re like Anna Nicole Smith. It costs a lot to be you.
ABRAMS: Yes, I guess so, but I‘m just saying—look at that. Come on.
ABRAMS: That‘s worth a lot right there. All right. Let me play a little bit more from Anna Nicole during the trial.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you call him right before he died?
ANNA NICOLE SMITH, J. HOWARD MARSHALL‘S WIDOW: I didn‘t know when he died.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you call him right before he died?
SMITH: I was in New York. They called me and told me he died.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, ma‘am. Did you make a call to him the last few days of his life?
SMITH: Yes, I sure did...
SMITH: ... and I would get hung up on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you aware he refused to talk to you?
SMITH: He did—never, never, you could never, never say that to me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: She wasn‘t a great witness in this case, was she?
GOLD-BIKIN: Well I don‘t think she is the sharpest knife in the drawer, but that kind of stuff to me in a courtroom doesn‘t really sell the apples, because you‘ve got to be able to prove that he meant her to have it. And then you would see something in writing. If he wanted her to have it, why didn‘t he write it? Now of course she is saying well he did write it but his son stole it and of course, that‘s, you know that‘s the fraud issue.
ABRAMS: Yes. All right. Well we will see if those apples will be sold. Lynne Gold-Bikin thanks a lot for coming on the program. Appreciate it.
ABRAMS: Coming up, she came to New York to study criminal justice, but police say a young woman was raped, tortured, murdered, her body left by the side of the road, her head wrapped in duct tape. A sight so gruesome it has shocked even long-time detectives.
And he is charged with ordering his wife‘s murder, hiring a man to show up with a dozen roses and shoot her. Well after nearly 20 years on the run, he is finally on trial.
Plus on a much lighter note, what do you do if you‘re a porn star looking for a new career? The former Savanna Samson joins us to talk about her new endeavor that has been getting rave reviews. And we‘re not talking about movies, but actually a hobby of mine. Not the movie.
Your e-mails firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and where you‘re writing from. I respond at the end of the show.
ABRAMS: We‘re back. It‘s being called an ironic tragedy. A 24-year-old graduate student studying to be a criminal justice expert sexually assaulted, brutally slain in New York City, leaving police wondering what sort of sicko they have got on their hands. Imette St. Guillen came to New York from Massachusetts in 2004 to study at John Jay College of criminal justice. Imette was found dead on Saturday, naked, wrapped in a blanket, her hand and feet bound, a sock had apparently been placed in her mouth, held in place with clear packaging tape which actually covered her entire face. She had been sexually assaulted, suffocated, strangled.
She was reportedly last seen somewhere around 3:00 in the morning on Saturday at a bar called Pioneer on the lower east side of Manhattan. Almost 18 hours later at about 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, an anonymous man called 911 from a diner to report a body on the side of the highway. A short time later, about a mile from that diner, St. Guillen‘s body was found near a highway about 15 miles from where she was last seen.
Joining me now Larry Kobilinsky, a forensics expert and professor at John Jay College of criminal justice where Imette was a student, “New York Sun” columnist Davidson Goldin and former FBI profiler and MSNBC analyst Clint Van Zandt. You can read Clint‘s column, “A Profiler‘s Perspective”, on our Web site, abramsreport.msnbc.com.
Larry, first before we talk about the technical and legal side to this, how are people at John Jay dealing with this?
LARRY KOBILINSKY, FORENSICS EXPERT: I can‘t even put it into words. We are heartbroken. We‘re a very close-knit community and virtually every faculty member, every administrator, every student is so stricken by this horrible event that I can‘t even describe. I can‘t put it into words.
ABRAMS: Did you know her, Larry?
KOBILINSKY: I didn‘t know her personally, although I had seen her at various occasions at the college.
ABRAMS: And is—are the authorities consulting with the college about this? I mean this must be an odd situation because I would assume that the authorities do turn to your college for research and other issues at times, but this is so personal that that‘s got to be an issue.
KOBILINSKY: Well, the college has pledged its support 100 percent. I mean clearly there is an investigation going on, and the police are questioning various people at the college that have some relationship with her. But this is going to require a multidisciplinary approach. And we will do anything and everything it takes to catch the perpetrator or perpetrators.
ABRAMS: All right. David Goldin, what do we know about the crime and about the investigation?
DAVIDSON GOLDIN, “NEW YORK SUN” COLUMNIST: Well at this point we know cops are trying to retrace her steps. They know that about 3:30 in the morning late Saturday night, early Sunday morning she had an argument with some friends outside the bar. Clearly her friend wanted to leave, she wanted to stay. That might sound late in New York it‘s not that late.
Last call in New York is 4:00. A bar like Pioneer bar a party bar. Not the kind of place you sit and sip a glass of wine. The kind of place you go with a group of friends. People are out late. Reports are that when she died, she was quite drunk. That‘s probably not unusual for a lot of people at Pioneer bar.
And the indications are that she was out with friends and made some new friends. And at one point one of her friends who left apparently checked in on her. She said she was at another bar. What cops are trying to figure out now is what bar that might have been. They are scouring bars in the area.
It‘s a very popular area, sort of a rundown part of the city. But in the last few years has become very trendy. Cops now checking to see where she might have been looking at videotapes, that sort of thing. Just trying to figure out where she went with whoever it was she met at that bar.
ABRAMS: Clint, the brutality of this crime has got to be a lead in and of itself.
CLINT VAN ZANDT, FORMER FBI PROFILER: Yes, Dan. I‘ve, you know, over the years have seen a lot of terrible murders. This ranks right up there with them. Everything that could be done to a person almost in this case has been done. The sexual assault, the torture, the cutting, the bruising.
It goes down, Dan, it gets so horrific, the clear tape that‘s put over her face. It could have just been all the killer had and he used that, but it also as you say, the sock in the mouth, the tape over her face. I have seen cases before where things like this have been done because the killer wants the victim to be able to see but not cry out for help as these terrible things are being done to her.
ABRAMS: You mean see as it‘s happening?
VAN ZANDT: See as it‘s happening. They want the victim to witness what is happening to them and yet deny them the ability to cry out for help. If you can—you know I mean Dan, we‘re climbing into the darkest, darkest chamber of the human mind when we look at someone or multiple individuals capable of doing something like this.
ABRAMS: I should say an anonymous source told the “Boston Herald” the sexual assault was not natural. The medical examiner said she had never seen anything like it. David, you mentioned a moment ago that there was apparently some sort of argument outside the bar. That‘s not believed to have been related to this at this point, right?
GOLDIN: Well the only way it would be related is to why the friend that left so badly wanted Imette to leave with her. Whether or not there was a concern that she was staying behind with people she shouldn‘t have stayed behind with. On the other hand, people in New York—you know people move to New York, it‘s an exciting city.
Bars out—people get started late. People stay out late. They make new friends at bars. And it could just be that one of her friends wanted to leave and she met some new friends she wanted to hang out with. But clearly at some point in that night there was a discussion between Imette and a friend about leaving. She chose to stay and apparently went someplace else afterwards. At that point, at this point it‘s cold.
ABRAMS: Larry, are the authorities telling you whether they feel that they are close to cracking this?
KOBILINSKY: Well, I have not heard that, but you know whether it takes a day, a week, a month, years, this case will be solved. There is physical evidence here. We have got the tape, which is probably going to have information, either fiber evidence, hair evidence, fingerprint evidence, DNA evidence.
We have this biological fluid either on or in her body. DNA evidence will come from that. Trace evidence from the quilt. I guarantee there will be a very interdisciplinary approach. This case will be solved one way or the other.
GOLDIN: But Dan, that doesn‘t mean quickly. Just a couple years ago, there was a case of a college student from Connecticut who the same sort of situation was out with friends, his friends left, he made new friends. Those new friends killed him.
That case took a couple of years to solve. They did solve it. But at least in the early stages of the investigation, very similar stories. And this happens in New York almost in cycles. That when people move to New York, they visit New York, and they wind up with the wrong people.
ABRAMS: And Clint, one of the problems that you have isolated is the numerous crime scenes, right?
VAN ZANDT: Yes, exactly, Dan. You‘ve got—you know one she was
taken or kidnapped somehow—you know I don‘t care how drunk she was, she
somebody had to take her along. Then there would be the crime scene where the assailant took her where he felt or they felt comfortable assaulting her.
Then there would be a vehicle to transport her the distance that you show with your graph. And then there would be the crime scene itself. So we have got at least four potential crime scenes. And as Larry suggests, there should be physical evidence from these crime scenes.
ABRAMS: Clint, what do you make of the 911-call?
VAN ZANDT: Well, I think the 911-call is interesting. Again, it was a mile away that you know her body was dumped in an area where the mob has dumped bodies before. The 911-call was made...
ABRAMS: Anonymous, right?
VAN ZANDT: ... was made about a mile away, and it was made from a pay phone that we know John Gotti, Jr. has used to make calls before. So there is this stupid, crazy, potential mob connection. I‘m not suggesting anybody in the mob did something like this, but these are all things that the police department has to look at and say is this just a coincidence?
Was this just a jogger or somebody driving by, saw the body, thought (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I‘m not going to use my cell phone, the police will trace it, so he or she went a mile away, made that call. Or was it the assailant, the killer, himself, herself, themselves, who made this call, wanting the body to be found, sending a message, perhaps some twisted care about the victim after putting her through the worst torture I think that most people could conceive of.
ABRAMS: And Larry, I assume that they have been inquiring at John Jay about whether she had a significant other, because that‘s always relevant.
KOBILINSKY: Well, it‘s true. You know, a good investigation is going to be a thorough one. Her body was found unclothed and therefore she may have had credit cards or bank cards. I mean there may be a trail here that the police will be able to follow. Everybody who has come into contact with her is being questioned now to see if there is any other information that they can you know come up with that might help the investigation.
ABRAMS: All right. Davidson Goldin, Larry Kobilinsky, and Clint Van Zandt, thanks a lot. We‘ll continue to follow this case and...
VAN ZANDT: Thank you.
ABRAMS: ... we‘re hoping it‘s cracked. And Larry, good luck to everyone over there.
KOBILINSKY: Thank you.
ABRAMS: I know it‘s got to be a tough time.
KOBILINSKY: I will pass the word. Thank you.
ABRAMS: Please do.
VAN ZANDT: Yes.
ABRAMS: Coming up, the trial that has captivated Atlanta‘s high society, a former socialite murdered at her front door by a man carrying a dozen roses. Prosecutors say her husband hired the killer because he didn‘t want to pay in the divorce.
And you probably know how much I like wine. If you watch this show, I have been on the lookout for great new vintages. Well we found one from an unlikely source. The woman formerly known as Savanna Samson, a porn star, is making wine. She joins us.
And our continuing series, “Manhunt: Sex Offenders on the Loose”, our effort to help find missing sex offenders before they strike. Our search today is in Nebraska.
Authorities need your help finding Michael Aldrich, convicted of kidnapping a minor and third degree sexual assault among other sex crimes. He‘s 23, five-seven, weighs 170, hasn‘t registered. If you‘ve got any information on his whereabouts, please contact the Nebraska State Patrol Sex Offender Registry, 402-471-8647. Be right back.
ABRAMS: Coming up, 19 years after the murder of a Georgia socialite killed by allegedly a hit man carrying a dozen pink roses, her husband is now on trial for her murder. The details after the break.
ABRAMS: A Georgia socialite answered the door for someone with a dozen pink roses in his hand and was shot and killed. Her husband James Sullivan is now on trial, accused of paying a hit man $25,000 to kill his wife Lita Sullivan 19 years ago. Prosecutors say he was afraid he‘d lose millions of dollars in their upcoming divorce trial.
On January 16, 1987, Lita Sullivan fatally shot at her Atlanta home by a man posing as a flower delivery guy. That morning she was scheduled to attend a court hearing related to her divorce. Her estranged husband, James Sullivan, was in Palm Beach, Florida, at the time. Twice charges against him were dismissed for lack of evidence.
Then in 1998, the break in the case. Phillip Tony Harwood arrested in North Carolina on unrelated charges. He confessed to shooting Lita Sullivan and claimed James, the hubby, hired me to do it. By this time, Sullivan was gone bouncing between Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela and Malaysia. In 2002, Sullivan was arrested in Thailand.
2003, Harwood pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, got a 20-year sentence. He is going to testify—is testifying against Sullivan who is facing a possible death sentence.
Joining me now, former Georgia prosecutor B.J. Bernstein and criminal
defense attorney Jonna Spilbor. Let me play a piece of sound before I talk
to you. From—this is from a witness to the murder—this is number one
talking about why this neighbor was suspicious of James Sullivan even before hearing anything at the house.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERT CHRISTENSON, WITNESS TO LITA SULLIVAN‘S MURDER: I knew darn well that they were going through a very contentious divorce, and so I was a little suspicious of Jim to begin with. You know, I hadn‘t talked to him in a long time and to have him call me out of the blue like this and ask about suspicious stuff around the house just seemed strange to me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: B.J., how strong a case do they have here?
B.J. BERNSTEIN, FORMER GEORGIA PROSECUTOR: They have got a strong case. I know it‘s taken a long time to build. This murder happened back in 1987. It‘s been on the radar in Atlanta for a long time. But it‘s one of those situations where piece by piece, bit by bit, the information has come together to be able to make a strong circumstantial case.
ABRAMS: But Jonna, as a defense attorney, the amount of time has got to work to your advantage, right?
JONNA SPILBOR, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Always, Dan. I mean most people can‘t remember who they talked to 19 minutes ago. All the evidence in this case is 19 years old. Time is always on a defendant‘s side and I think that will happen in this case, too.
ABRAMS: But I guess if you‘re the hit man, you don‘t forget about having shot someone, right?
BERNSTEIN: You don‘t forget about that at all. And the other part about this is you know there are some tangible things here, phone records, a phone call that went to the mansion where Sullivan was at that came 40 minutes after the murder of his wife. Those types of things are things that are tangible that time don‘t—doesn‘t erode.
ABRAMS: Here is a little bit more of the witness today. And this is one of the problems. You know we‘re talking about 19 years later. Listen to this question and answer with a neighbor.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you sit here today, can you give the jury some idea what kind of confidence do you have about your ability to possibly recognize the man today, if you saw him?
CHRISTENSON: Well, it‘s been 19 years, so you know even as traumatic as that day was and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) into your memory as something like that is, I don‘t know that I could.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: So Jonna, does this case really hinge on the testimony of the hit man?
SPILBOR: Well it does but that‘s also good for the defense because the hit man recanted, apparently. And let‘s not forget that the hit man sitting in jail for 20 years, so he has a reason to do whatever the prosecution wants him to do. But now he‘s recanted, so who should the jury believe?
Are they going to believe the hit man then? Are they going to believe the hit man now? And they have to find proof beyond a reasonable doubt. How can you be certain when a person is going to testify out of both sides of his mouth?
BERNSTEIN: Well of course the other side to this is look at Sullivan and his conduct. After you know your wife is brutally murdered and you go off to Palm Beach, and then when you‘re indicted, you go to South America, you end up in Malaysia and Thailand. That‘s not...
BERNSTEIN: ... exactly the conduct of someone who hasn‘t done something wrong.
ABRAMS: Yes, Jonna, that wasn‘t very helpful, was it?
SPILBOR: No, but you know from what I understand, Dan, this man—
Mr. Sullivan had already had his case dismissed by a federal judge so he could have felt like hey you know what, I‘m a free guy. I‘m not sticking around the United States. I‘m rich. I‘m going to go to Fiji or spend the rest of my days on an island. There is nothing wrong with that. But you know, can I just say this...
ABRAMS: Wait. There were four years between the time that he was indicted and the time that they captured him in Thailand.
SPILBOR: Well he wasn‘t planning to come back. Here is the question that I think the jury has to overcome if I‘m representing him. If he didn‘t do it, who did? And so hopefully they are going to bring in some sort of evidence—excuse me—that there was a third party culpability, that she was involved in something. I know it sounds like bashing the victim, but if he didn‘t do it, who did?
ABRAMS: Here is, again, the neighbor describing what he heard.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you describe the shots that you heard?
CHRISTENSON: Yes, they were bang, bang, like that, in rapid succession.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. And what did you do after you heard those two shots in rapid succession?
CHRISTENSON: Well, you know, as soon as I heard them, I knew what had happened.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: B.J., death penalty case, right?
BERNSTEIN: Yes. They are going after the death penalty. I will say that‘s a—you know you‘ve got some difficulties with that in that the triggerman cut a deal and he got 20 years in prison, and so it‘s always a difficult path when you‘re trying to you know have the death penalty on the person who wasn‘t physically involved...
BERNSTEIN: ... but rather the person who ordered it.
ABRAMS: Jonna, would you be worried if you were his attorney about the fact that the killer had flowers in his hand, that maybe that the allegation would be that the husband told him to bring roses and then shoot while holding those roses?
SPILBOR: Not really. I just think the roses were a ruse so that the woman would—the victim would answer the door. And you know it didn‘t—wouldn‘t look suspicious to the neighbors who were outside...
SPILBOR: ... mowing their lawn or whatever.
ABRAMS: I would think that there would be a lot of people out there who would think roses reflect love, and that...
ABRAMS: ... then you know gunshots coming out from the roses makes it that much sort of more gruesome maybe.
SPILBOR: It makes for a good story. Unless she had a boyfriend, who knows? Maybe she had a jilted lover.
ABRAMS: Come on...
BERNSTEIN: I mean you know it‘s...
ABRAMS: Let‘s not go there.
BERNSTEIN: ... the day of their divorce hearing. That‘s what‘s, you know...
BERNSTEIN: ... it gets back to the timing of when the murder happened. And she was supposed to be in court that day...
BERNSTEIN: ... in what was a very contentious divorce.
ABRAMS: B.J., real quick, are there any other possible suspects? I mean is the defense going to point fingers at anybody else?
BERNSTEIN: I think that Don Samuel who is the defense attorney is just really hitting...
BERNSTEIN: ... hard on poking holes that there is no direct evidence.
ABRAMS: Right. Right. All right. B.J. Bernstein and Jonna Spilbor, we‘ll follow this story. Thanks a lot. Appreciate it.
SPILBOR: Thanks, Dan.
ABRAMS: Still ahead, anyone who watches this show knows I like drinking wine. When I found out that a new highly rated wine came from a very intriguing source, I thought it was our duty to share it with you. The vintner who also happens to be a porn star joins me next.
And later remember what happened to the woman who spilled that McDonald‘s coffee on herself? Well the days of those massive jury awards could be coming to an end. I say it‘s about time. My “Closing Argument” is coming up.
Your e-mails email@example.com. Please include your name and where you‘re writing from. I respond at the end of the show.
ABRAMS: Coming up, a hot new winemaker, and she also happens to be an adult film star. Savanna Samson joins me next.
ABRAMS: Sure, drinking to much wine can lead some to have sex. But who knew that having sex could help spur a career in wine. Anyone who watches this program knows I like wine, which is why I‘m taking a few moments from the program about justice to talk with an unusual winemaker about a wine that internationally known critic Robert Parker is raving about.
He gave Sogno Uno—it means Dream One—an outstanding score of 90-91 out of 100. He tells “The New York Times” it‘s a very fine wine, awfully good. It was really opulent and luscious and it had a personality. Words that also might describe my next guest, the woman behind the bottle, Natalie Oliveros, known to her fans as Savanna Samson, star of “The New Devil In Miss Jones” and many other adult films. She is also a two-time winner of the Adult Video News Award and author of the book “Vamp”.
Natalie Oliveros, thanks for coming on the program. Appreciate it.
NATALIE OLIVEROS, ADULT FILM STAR “SAVANNA SAMSON”: Thank you for having me.
ABRAMS: How does someone go from adult films into winemaking?
OLIVEROS: I have always had a passion for wine. And I thought as I started my career like how can I really leave my mark in this world? And I thought what better way than my love for wine? And I have been studying wine for the last seven years. My husband Daniel Oliveros is in the wine business, which is why I know so much about wine. I don‘t claim to be an expert in any way, shape, or form, but I know what I like.
ABRAMS: But you‘re helping to make the wine?
OLIVEROS: Oh, yes. This wine, I knew that it would be a success even if I had it in every strip club across the country...
ABRAMS: So this was supposed to be a sort of strip club wine?
OLIVEROS: No, I knew that if I had to go that way, that it would be a success.
ABRAMS: All right.
OLIVEROS: But because of my connections in the wine world and—I chose Roberto Cipresso to make my first. I asked him and he is an amazing winemaker. And he was just honored to make it. And so I knew that it was going to also be a great wine.
ABRAMS: Again, I‘m a big wine fan and when this critic, Robert Parker, is a very famous, influential critic. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) good review it sort of sells out right away...
ABRAMS: ... and you say that you were disappointed you didn‘t get a higher rating...
ABRAMS: ... in your wine. Now—are you done now in the adult film industry? I mean is it now only wine?
OLIVEROS: No, I have many passions. I have a contract with Vivid. And I‘m not going anywhere away from the adult industry. I really enjoy what I do, but this is one thing that I can bank on that I—it‘s endless possibilities. Something that my parents and my family can be proud of.
ABRAMS: Because I assume that they were not so thrilled with the career in the adult film industry.
OLIVEROS: Not so thrilled.
ABRAMS: And is this making up for that?
OLIVEROS: Well, you know it‘s one of my passions. It‘s one of my dad‘s passions. I remember when I was a little girl, we actually made wine in the basement, like cranking it in the barrel. And so I have always had fond memories of wine, and I just think there is endless possibilities. I‘m not stuck in one region.
ABRAMS: Why wouldn‘t you use this as a ticket to get out of the adult film world? From what I read about the interviews with you, you seem to like it.
OLIVEROS: Yes, I don‘t—I love the...
ABRAMS: I mean a lot of people try and get out of it. You know a lot of people want to get out of the adult film world. And people would say wow, this woman has created this wine that‘s being critically acclaimed. This is her ticket out.
OLIVEROS: Yes, but I‘m not looking for a ticket out of the wine—of the adult industry. I mean I really enjoy what I do. I—you know I‘m not ashamed of what I do. And you know, I just started my own production company that Vivid will distribute for me and so this is just one of my passions and so is sex, so...
ABRAMS: Yes. Oh I guess wine and sex have a long...
OLIVEROS: Go together.
ABRAMS: ... history of compatibility. All right. So I want to try this wine. Now this—I know, you want to warn me.
ABRAMS: Because this is not the wine that got the great review, right?
OLIVEROS: No, we drank that all at the launch last night.
ABRAMS: Yes, we were a little disappointed that you guys didn‘t save any for the segment.
OLIVEROS: If I had known...
ABRAMS: Right. All right. But anyway, so what is this...
ABRAMS: ... what is this I‘m about to try here?
OLIVEROS: This is the Chesnee Sea Grape (ph)...
OLIVEROS: ... the wine from the 2005. We have already picked the grapes for the 2005, and this is the first time I‘m tasting it, tasting the wine.
ABRAMS: Oh, you haven‘t tasted this...
OLIVEROS: No, I mean I tasted it today...
ABRAMS: Oh all right, OK...
OLIVEROS: ... with Roberto Cipresso who was here...
OLIVEROS: ... for the wine launch last night.
OLIVEROS: So this—in this wine, it‘s 70 percent Chesinesi (ph)...
OLIVEROS: ... 20 percent Sangiovese...
OLIVEROS: ... and 10 percent Montepulciano.
ABRAMS: All right.
OLIVEROS: This is the 2005 Chesinesi (ph)...
ABRAMS: All right.
OLIVEROS: ... and so it‘s unusual and I would like you to taste it.
ABRAMS: Well I would like to taste it. I‘m going to taste it right now. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
OLIVEROS: It‘s very spicy.
ABRAMS: It‘s a little spicy. A little young.
ABRAMS: See I always find these wine terms, you know like people use all these—like it‘s a little this and it‘s a little, it‘s got a smoke and it, you know, you know, you know and...
OLIVEROS: Well what I loved about the Chesinesi (ph) Dan, loved the spiciness of it, but I thought if it could be a little bit sweeter. And so you know Roberto...
ABRAMS: Sweeter to reflect your personality more?
OLIVEROS: Well, I can be spicy...
OLIVEROS: ... in a way.
ABRAMS: ... I guess that‘s true. Spicy might be good...
OLIVEROS: And a little bit of the time I can be sweet. So I mean...
OLIVEROS: ... the Sangiovese will be added to this. I don‘t know if we‘ll stick to the same formula...
ABRAMS: All right.
OLIVEROS: ... because we still have to taste the Sangiovese and the Montepulciano.
ABRAMS: Excellent. Natalie Oliveros, thanks for coming in. Good luck with your ventures because it sounds like you‘re not leaving the world of adult film.
OLIVEROS: No. And I‘m already working on a white wine (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...
ABRAMS: Good luck to you. Thanks for coming...
OLIVEROS: Thank you very much.
ABRAMS: ... on the program. Appreciate it.
Coming up, jurors taking matters into their own hands, cutting the amount awarded to plaintiffs way down in 2005. It seems that Congress and the White House can‘t figure out how to put a stop to enormous jury verdicts. Maybe it‘s up to all of us to do when we‘re sitting in the jury box. My boss is walking up any minute. He‘s saying what are you guys doing a wine segment with an adult film star? Coming up, the “Closing Argument” in a moment.
ABRAMS: My “Closing Argument”—bravo to jurors. The numbers are in for 2005 and for a third straight year juries tightened the purse strings on plaintiffs seeking big windfalls in the courtroom. In 100 biggest payouts of 2005, jurors awarded $8.2 billion—still an astonishing number, but it‘s actually the lowest annual total since 2001 according to the “National Law Journal”. Suggesting that even if tort reform can‘t get traction in Congress, it may be taking hold inside the jury box. What‘s particularly encouraging—the amount of money jurors awarded to compensate plaintiffs for their loss has remained pretty constant.
So those who have been hurt are being compensated, but it‘s the punitive damages that have almost crashed. The damages that often can lead to absurd verdicts, down to $3.5 billion last year, from 36 billion in 2002. Those payouts are strictly awarded as punishment. Now some say the numbers are just erratic. Maybe. I‘m hoping that other experts are right, that it‘s a backlash against the lawsuit lottery mentality that many of us are sick of hearing about. Ridiculous payouts and a mindset in this country to sue first, ask questions later.
Look, on this show I‘ve advocated some tort reform. I‘ve commended states who have adopted certain caps on punitive damages, but even better than state action would be jurors taking matters into their own hands and just saying no to those who try to abuse the legal system.
Coming up, yesterday we ask why it seems like more female teachers are having sex with their students than ever before. One of you says because there aren‘t enough men to go around. Come on. Your e-mails are next.
ABRAMS: I‘ve had my say, now it‘s time for “Your Rebuttal”. An elementary school teacher charged with having sex with her 11-year-old student. Last night we asked what is with all these women sleeping with boys? Is it happening more often or are we just hearing about it more?
Claudia Schaefer in Atlanta, “I will tell you why female teachers are having sex with underage students more and more nowadays. It‘s because there is a shortage of men to go around for women in their late 30‘s. I think women in their 30‘s start to feel angry at the societal shunning and take their anger out on society by sleeping with younger boys who have no qualms about a woman in her 30‘s.”
Come on, Claudia. You make it sound like it‘s almost normal or expected that women would have sex with children.
Child welfare worker Janice Brown in Rockland, Maine. “I really take offense to people saying that a teacher is having sex with a child. It is sexual molestation, which is entirely different.”
In my “Closing Argument” last night I said it‘s time for those moaning about being charged for many services on airplanes that we used to get for free to get over it. I would much rather have to pay for peanuts than have fares go up across the board.
Almost all of you agreed including Kathy Winters in Milford, Connecticut. “Can‘t agree with you more regarding snacks, drinks or food on flights. I too want the ticket cost kept to a minimum. Sit down and be responsible for yourself.”
But not John Kling in Cincinnati, Ohio, says “I‘m all for creating efficiencies that produce shareholder value. This however strikes me as a publicity exercise aimed at the bankruptcy court rather than improving real economic profitability.”
Your e-mails abramsreport—one word -- @msnbc.com. We go through them at the end of the show. If I am still here tomorrow after doing that segment on a porn star who has become a winemaker and I still have this chair, then I will see you then.
Regardless, you‘ll be seeing Chris Matthews. “HARDBALL” up next and everyday. See you.
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