Guest: Joseph Foy, Donna Pendergast, Tom Furtaw, Harriet Semander, Maria Semander, Ronald Kaplovitz, Daniel Horowitz, Mercedes Colwin, Dean Johnson, Bill Sullivan, Jerome Mooney
DAN ABRAMS, HOST: Coming up, a tip from one of our viewers brings a confessed serial killer to justice.
ABRAMS (voice-over): Coral Eugene Watts was set to walk out of prison in less than two years even after admitting he killed 13 women. That is until a viewer saw his picture on our show. That man was the only eyewitness to yet another murder. Now Watts will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
And they testified about issues related to guilt in Scott Peterson‘s trial. Now his family and Laci‘s are preparing to testify in the next phase—the penalty phase—when Peterson will learn if he‘ll live or die. We‘ll show you what they may say.
Plus, what‘s wrong with this picture? A federal judge sentences a music executive to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana while just two hours earlier, the same judge sentenced a murderer to half that time. The judge says his hands are tied. We debate.
The program about justice starts now.
ABRAMS: Hi everyone. First up on the docket tonight, guilty. One of the worst serial killers in U.S. history found guilty of murder in a Michigan courtroom and it is all because the man who became the only eyewitness was watching this program. He‘s the man you see here listening to the verdict.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Members of the jury (UNINTELLIGIBLE) verdict is recorded. You do (UNINTELLIGIBLE) find the defendant guilty of first-degree premeditated murder in the manner and form as the people (UNINTELLIGIBLE) information in this cause charged, so say you Ms. Foreperson.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes we do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: The defendant, Coral Eugene Watts confessed to killing 12 women in Texas, one in Michigan, but apparently, police didn‘t think they had enough evidence. They cut a deal to have him bring him to some of the bodies in exchange for immunity. In fact, he had never been prosecuted for a single murder until now.
Watts was serving time in a Texas prison for burglary that is until we aired a segment back in January explaining how he was set to be released in 2006. One of our viewers recognized Watts‘ from that segment and called the Michigan Attorney General‘s Office after we put up the phone number.
That viewer, Joseph Foy, said the man he saw in the video on our show was the same man he watched kill Helen Dutcher in suburban Detroit 25 years ago. He explained that to the jury last week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your Honor, I‘d ask that Mr. Watts take off his glasses at this time if the court would allow it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You may.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Foy, do you see the person that you saw that night in this courtroom today?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I do.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK and would you please point to him and describe what he‘s wearing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It would be the gentleman over there, blue vest, blue shirt, glasses in his hand.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does he look the same today as he did then?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eyes do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: “My Take”—it‘s moments like these that make my job worthwhile. If we had not taken such an interest in this case, it probably never would have been solved. Let‘s be clear though. The credit goes to the victims‘ families for never giving up, to the state of Michigan and the Attorney General‘s Office and of course to Mr. Foy, the witness who watched our show and became the key witness, and just to be able to have brought them together is good enough for me.
Joining me now is that viewer who made it all happen, Joseph Foy, and the prosecutors in the case, Michigan assistant attorneys general Thomas Furtaw and Donna Pendergast. Thank you both very much for coming on the program. I appreciate it.
All right, Mr. Foy, let me start with you. Boy, this has got to be a huge relief. I know this has become a big part of your life for, you know, at least the last few months. Tell me what happened when you saw the program, tell me what you had known up to that time, tell me how you decided to come forward, et cetera.
JOSEPH FOY, RECOGNIZED WATTS ON THE ABRAMS REPORT: There was never really any hesitation to come forward. I was just channel surfing, ran across your program, had seen the same clip that—had seen prior to and immediately turned up the volume and you guys were discussing how you needed tips in the Michigan cases and I didn‘t hesitate to call right away.
ABRAMS: So you knew—did you know that the guy you had seen was a serial killer at the time?
FOY: In 2004, yes, I knew—I had known prior because of the deal he had made in Texas in ‘82.
ABRAMS: But you didn‘t know that the Michigan authorities were actively trying to build a case against him at that time.
FOY: No, not at all, not at all. It was a shock because as they were discussing it, I‘m like the Ferndale murder, you know about the Ferndale murder. How come nobody‘s asking me about this Ferndale murder and I—that‘s when I decided to call.
ABRAMS: And you called the number that we put on the screen and they brought you right to the right people?
FOY: Yes, I got the number for the attorney general and called that night and then I called the next day.
ABRAMS: And there was no question in your mind—we had Mr. Kaplovitz on the program—was saying that he thought it was hard to believe—he said he didn‘t think you were lying, but that he thought that it was hard to believe you could have actually I.D.‘d Mr. Watts from as far away as you were—your response.
FOY: No. It‘s not every day you see someone take another human life. I seen that man kill this woman. I seen him walk away from the scene. And when—before he got in his car, we actually locked eyes and I—not to sound melodramatic, but I actually looked into the face of evil that night and we—it‘s just something that‘s just embedded in my brain. It will never go away.
ABRAMS: Mr. Foy, you deserve a lot of credit for this. I know this is, you know, testifying in a trial, particularly as the chief prosecution witness is not easy stuff. Let me talk to the two people who were involved in—Ms. Pendergast and Mr. Furtaw.
All right. Ms. Pendergast, this has got to be, I assume, one of those cases, I mean look, all murder cases, when you get a conviction I would assume are difficult, you know, there‘s really celebration. You don‘t want to feel happy about it, but there‘s got to be a real sense of relief on your part that this man is staying behind bars.
DONNA PENDERGAST, MICHIGAN ASSISTANT ATTY GENERAL: Well absolutely. I mean for the last three weeks, I‘ve said my shoulders have felt like they were in a vice just because everybody knew that the stakes were really just so high in this case, but everybody on this end is extremely relieved that this monster will never be on the street again.
ABRAMS: And Mr. Furtaw, I think some people, you know, who didn‘t follow this case that closely say to themselves how is it that he was ever going to be released in the first place?
TOM FURTAW, MICHIGAN ASSISTANT ATTY GENERAL: Well, I think you know, the Texas authorities back in the 1980‘s used their best judgment and when he received his sentence to 60 to 90 years in one of his violent assaults, they believed that he in fact was gone for life. Due to a technicality, however, in Texas law, he was eligible for good time, good credit in prison and was eligible to be released. That‘s when Attorney General Mike Cox ordered that we start to take leadership on a task force looking at unsolved homicides in the Detroit area where Mr. Watts had known to live in the late 70‘s and early ‘80‘s.
ABRAMS: Mr. Furtaw, do you have a sense that Mr. Watts actually thought he was going to be released? I mean you may not know the answer to this question, but do you think that he was actually expecting to walk out or do you think he knew there would be something else coming?
FURTAW: I don‘t think there‘s any question he knew he was getting out. He had been working out in prison, jogging, all indications based on Texas authorities were that he was looking forward to that day in 2006 when he thought he was going to get out before Michigan got involved—before the A.G. looked...
FURTAW: ... at the case. So we believe he was ready to get out and as he had promised to do, to kill again.
ABRAMS: Ms. Pendergast, what was the most important point, do you think, that led to this conviction?
PENDERGAST: Well I mean the most important point, I really believe as hulky as it sounds to a certain extent and divine intervention. I mean the really amazing thing about this case is what are the odds that the minute that Attorney General Mike Cox is on your show asking for help that Joe Foy just happened to be watching the program that night. You know, Joseph Foy we felt from the start was a very strong witness, and I spoke to the jury after the verdict and they felt he was as well.
ABRAMS: Well this is a very...
PENDERGAST: ... so his testimony obviously.
ABRAMS: Yes, this is a very important moment and all three of you deserve a lot of credit here because as you pointed out, this is a dangerous, dangerous guy who is now off the streets today. Joseph Foy, Tom Furtaw, Donna Pendergast, thank you all very much for coming on the program. I appreciate it.
PENDERGAST: Thank you.
FURTAW: Thank you.
FOY: Thank you.
ABRAMS: Coming up, we‘re going to talk to some of the victims‘ families coming up and the attorney for Mr. Watts.
And Scott Peterson will likely face emotional testimony from Laci‘s family and friends as they testify in the penalty phase. We look back at what they‘ve said in the past as a guide as to what they might say in the penalty phase...
ABRAMS: One of the worst serial killers in American history who was set to be free next year is now going to stay behind bars for life. We‘re going to talk to some of the victims‘ families coming up.
ABRAMS: We‘re talking about the guilty verdict in the case of Coral Eugene Watts, one of the worst serial killers in American history who was set to walk out of prison a free man in 2006 until a viewer of this program saw an episode—we were talking about what could be done. The fact that Michigan wanted any information, they wanted help, he saw the show, he‘d witnessed another murder, he called in. Now Coral Eugene Watts is going to be spending the rest of his life in prison.
Joining me now are Harriet and Maria Semander. Harriet‘s daughter and Maria‘s sister, Elena, was killed by Coral Eugene Watts in 1982, strangled, and left in a dumpster. I hate to even describe it, but thank you so much for coming on the program. We really appreciate it. So this—I mean this has got to be a day of relief, I would assume, I should say Harriet, for you.
HARRIET SEMANDER, DAUGHTER WAS KILLED BY WATTS: Yes. Oh, absolutely. In fact, from the time I heard he was charged with the murder, I have felt very (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and I just can‘t wipe the smile off my face. I have been very, very happy, very relieved, and feel like Elena‘s spirit is at rest and that justice has been served.
ABRAMS: Maria, this has got to—this must have been so frustrating for you up to this point to know he had confessed to killing your sister and yet, there he was preparing to walk out of prison a free man in 2006.
MARIA SEMANDER, SISTER WAS KILLED BY WATTS: Obviously very frustrating. I think what has been most frustrating is how long we‘ve been fighting to keep him in prison based on the facts that he had confessed to killing so many women. You never think you‘d be in a situation like that where you‘re trying to keep a serial killer behind bars. It‘s unbelievable. And I think we can finally just, you know, exhale...
ABRAMS: Yes, I‘ll bet.
M. SEMANDER: ... and say it‘s done.
ABRAMS: Tell me a little bit about your sister.
M. SEMANDER: I love it when people ask that question, first of all, and I was just telling my mom it‘s so nice to be able (UNINTELLIGIBLE) do an interview. We‘ve been interviewing for a long time to be able to smile in an interview. Elena was three years older than I was and we were very close. We all close to Elena. She was very athletic and fun to be around.
She was beautiful. She had long black hair—gorgeous black hair from—is what I remember her by. And I remember her laugh and her smile. She was a great athlete and a very talented artist and we were able to actually create a scholarship program at that school that she graduated from for students who excel in art and athletics...
ABRAMS: Oh, that‘s great.
M. SEMANDER: ... in honor of her memory.
ABRAMS: Oh, that‘s great. Harriet, was it difficult for you to sit inside the courtroom, sitting next to, across from, near the man who admitted to killing your daughter?
H. SEMANDER: Well, I had been in the courtroom before in Texas with him. So I was not—I was prepared really not to look at him much. I didn‘t want him to feel my power or take power away from me. He was nothing to me. I felt no emotion during the time I‘ve been in Michigan and I—you know, I was very glad to be there and to support the Dutcher family.
ABRAMS: Well, Harriet and Maria Semander, you know, without the resolve of people like you, this case probably never would have happened and I think everyone would be in danger because he would still be on the streets. So I think you deserve a thanks from everyone and good luck to both of you.
H. SEMANDER: Thank you...
M. SEMANDER: Thank you very much.
H. SEMANDER: ... very much for having us.
ABRAMS: Joining me now is Ronald Kaplovitz, Coral Eugene Watts‘ attorney. Mr. Kaplovitz thanks for coming back on the program. All right, so we talked yesterday. Really, you can‘t say this verdict is much of a surprise, right?
RONALD KAPLOVITZ, CORAL EUGENE WATTS‘ ATTORNEY: No, not really. Obviously when you, you know, you prepare for a case and you defend a case and you put your best effort in the case, you believe sometimes your own statements and you get hopeful that you might get a favorable verdict. But quite frankly from the very beginning of this case, I knew I was—had a very large mountain to climb and my chances of being able to climb it were probably not going to be very good.
ABRAMS: Are you going to continue to represent Mr. Watts?
KAPLOVITZ: Well obviously, I‘ll continue to represent him through sentencing on December 7 of this year. At that point in time, he will have the right to request appellate council and I don‘t do these appeals, so I won‘t be handling beyond that. So the answer is probably not beyond his sentencing.
ABRAMS: Will you feel sort of good riddance? Let‘s think this is the kind of guy that, you know, sure you go into the practice of law, criminal defense law in particular and you say I want to challenge the system, I want to test the system, et cetera, but I still have to believe that representing a, you know, a low life like this guy who is a serial killer really don‘t get a whole lot lower than that. It‘s got to make you say you know what, just happy to get rid of this guy as a client.
KAPLOVITZ: Well, it‘s interesting because my relationship with Coral Watts was nothing but cordial. He was very, very cooperative and very, very decent, really more so than most of the criminal defendant clients I‘ve represented. He certainly was smarter than virtually all of them.
Yet, on the other hand, obviously the things you say about him, you know, there certainly is truth to all of that and it hasn‘t been easy representing him and that‘s really why what I‘ve been doing is focusing on my professional responsibility, which I also think by handling the case in the manner that I chose to handle it, you establish credibility with the jury and you give your client the best possible chance of getting a successful result.
ABRAMS: Look, and I think—and I‘ve said this to you before—and I think you also do a service to other criminal defense attorneys. Just for people who didn‘t watch, Mr. Kaplovitz, you know, will come on and say he‘s representing a despicable human being. I mean right—you would concede that, correct?
KAPLOVITZ: I conceded that to the jury in voir dire. I‘m the one who told them certain things about his background before the prosecution even did. Because from my point of view as a defense attorney, to have any chance of winning, I have to establish credibility with that jury and if you do that, you at least get a chance. So being straightforward with them about some of the problems or weaknesses in my case and obviously, the prior bad acts was a serious problem in my case, it gives you a better chance of maybe somehow getting a successful result. Didn‘t happen here. Certainly not surprised it didn‘t happen, but that was the strategy that we employed.
ABRAMS: Yes, I—look, I think you should feel good about the way you represented him and I think you should feel good about the fact you may never have to see this guy again. Ron Kaplovitz, thank you very much for coming...
KAPLOVITZ: You‘re welcome. Thank you.
ABRAMS: Coming up, Laci Peterson‘s family members were some of the prosecution‘s first witnesses during the Scott Peterson trial. Now they‘re expected to take the stand next week as jurors decide whether Peterson lives or dies. We‘ll show you what they may say.
And what about his family? His parents showed unwavering support for their son, rarely missing a court day during the five-month long trial. How might they put a human face on their son and help save his life?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VOICE OF COURT CLERK, CA SUPERIOR COURT, SAN MATEO COUNTY: We, the jury, in the above and titled cause find the defendant Scott Lee Peterson guilty of the crime of murder of Laci Denise Peterson.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Scott Peterson guilty of two counts of murder and in just a few days jurors will be back in court to hear testimony in the penalty phase. There‘s no doubt the penalty phase will be emotional for everyone involved. Laci‘s family will be crucial for the prosecution. So we went back and found some of the statements they have made to give you a sense of what they may say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As your older brother, I only wish that I had the opportunity to be there to defend you from the person that decided to take you away from me.
SHARON ROCHA, LACI PETERSON‘S MOTHER: Laci and her unborn child did not deserve to die. They certainly did not deserve to be dumped in the bay and sent to a watering grave as though their lives were meaningless. Laci meant the world to me. She was my only daughter. She was my best friend. We miss her beautiful smile, her laughter, her love, and her kind and loving ways. I miss seeing her, talking to her, and hugging her.
BRENT ROCHA, LACI PETERSON‘S BROTHER: Your disappearance has completely changed my life as I once knew it. I miss your beautiful smile and your fun-loving personality. Every time we were together, I could feel the unconditional love between the both of us.
S. ROCHA: I can only hope that the sound of Laci‘s voice begging for her life and begging for the life of her unborn child is heard over and over and over again in the mind of that person every day for the rest of his life.
RON GRANTSKI, LACI PETERSON‘S STEP FATHER: I feel sorry for Jackie Lee and her family. They don‘t deserve this, but Laci and our family didn‘t either.
B. ROCHA: We talked about our children growing up together and spending summers at each other‘s house. Now that you and Conner have been taken away from me, I realize that my children will not have cousins to grow up with and family events will feel very lonely without you and Conner.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: I can—I mean I‘ve heard these statements many times and it doesn‘t feel any less emotional every time I hear it. But that‘s the sort of testimony that we may hear in the penalty phase of this case from the family of Laci Peterson.
Coming up, my legal team joins me to talk about how that may impact and you‘ve heard from Laci‘s family—next, we‘ll do the same thing with Scott Peterson‘s families. What have they said since this case started? Will they make good witnesses in the penalty phase?
And he said the sentence was unjust, cruel, even irrational, but a federal judge sentenced a pot dealer to 55 years in prison for selling small bags of marijuana to a police informant. The judge says federal mandatory minimum sentences are to blame and get this—a convicted murderer in his courtroom hours earlier got half that time.
Your e-mails firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and where you‘re writing from. I‘ll respond at the end of the show.
ABRAMS: Coming up, there‘s news to report in the Scott Peterson case. Defense attorney Mark Geragos wants a new jury in a new place, but first the headlines.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No more O.J.s, man. I come all the way from Texas just to see this. No more O.J.s...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: That was the reaction to the verdict in the Scott Peterson case and it is that reaction that defense attorney Mark Geragos is citing in part, asking now, only moments ago for not just a new jury for the penalty phase, but he wants it in a new place. So remember, this jury that‘s convicted Scott Peterson of first-degree murder and second-degree murder of the unborn child. Geragos wants to get rid of it, get a new jury, get it in a new place for the penalty phase. This case expected to start on Monday.
“My Take”—he‘s got no shot at all. He asked for this before the trial started. The judge said no. The judge is going to say no again now. Joining me now criminal defense attorneys Daniel Horowitz and here in the studio Mercedes Colwin, and on the phone, former San Mateo County prosecutor Dean Johnson.
All right, Daniel, you‘ve been very pro-opened to defense arguments.
You seem to like Mark Geragos‘ strategy. He doesn‘t have a shot, does he?
DANIEL HOROWITZ, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, Dan, let‘s say that that juror number five, the doctor/lawyer, who was thrown off the jury has an ax to grind. Maybe he wrote Geragos a letter and said you know, during deliberations, this panel already made up their mind or at least some of them already made up their mind on life or death, probably death and therefore, I need to tell you as an officer of the court and as a citizen, if there‘s an affidavit like that in the motion, Geragos may have a chance to get rid of this panel.
ABRAMS: But Mercedes, even—let‘s even assume for a moment everything Daniel said, which we haven‘t seen the papers yet. We don‘t know exactly what he‘s claiming, but let‘s even assume—still, that‘s an issue for an appeal. That would effectively mean there should be a mistrial. Meaning...
ABRAMS: ... if that happened, you throw the case out. You say I‘m going to disregard the verdict. You don‘t say I‘m going to get a new jury to listen to the penalty phase.
MERCEDES COLWIN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Exactly right. Exactly right. I mean if that‘s the evidence of jury misconduct to that level, he gets a new trial. That‘s end of story and on the appeal. But in terms of now, I mean certainly Delucchi had already denied the two-jury concept in the beginning and that‘s really when it was most critical.
You didn‘t want a jury in this case to already be predisposed to impose the death penalty, but they did with one juror. In a death penalty case, they‘ve already been asked during voir dire would you impose the death penalty? Do you have a problem imposing the death penalty? Many of them said no. That‘s why they were empanelled and became a jury in this case. That‘s when it became most critical.
ABRAMS: Dean Johnson, this is just a jury Mark Geragos doesn‘t want to have to look in the eye again.
DEAN JOHNSON, FMR. SAN MATEO COUNTY PROSECUTOR: Oh absolutely. You know, and I wondered how the defense spinmiesters were going to spin a guilty verdict. Now we know. They‘re going to impeach the jury and they‘re going to slander the good people of Redwood City. These motions have absolutely no chance whatsoever.
Indeed, two of the leading cases that Mark Geragos and the prosecutors will be arguing about come out of San Mateo County in the Beardsley (ph) case, who is incidentally the next guy in California to actually receive execution. He had two juries. California Supreme Court in that case said you know what? A defendant may very well be better off having that one jury.
Why? Because the jury that considered guilt also knows whether or not there‘s a lingering doubt, which is a big factor in deciding death. These motions have absolutely no chance.
ABRAMS: Daniel, come on. Just—you can just tell us. I mean the bottom line is you know they have no chance, right?
HOROWITZ: Well I don‘t know Dan. We have to presume that Mark Geragos is a little bit more talented than being a guy who just goes up and says judge...
HOROWITZ: ... you‘ve denied the motion before. Let me try it again and make a fool of myself.
ABRAMS: I‘m not saying he‘s not going to give reasons. He‘ll give reasons and I bet you they will sound something like some of the reasons you laid out. But even if that—even if the juror who was dismissed says oh, they were talking about the sentence before. They‘re not supposed to talk about the sentence; as a result they can‘t be fair.
In so many of these cases, we hear appeals or people pleading to judges saying oh, one of the jurors came back and said this or this or that. And still, it‘s very hard to get anything changed based on what jurors say after the fact.
HOROWITZ: But preventively, Dan, it‘s very powerful to do it before the jury is voted for death in this case. By saying to Delucchi we have evidence that often is brought up years later, we have it right now. Act before something happens that‘s a miscarriage. It‘s really his best shot.
COLWIN: Delucchi will probably give a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) instruction to that jury if it comes out that jury number five says look they were already talking about the death penalty phase before they found him guilty of the charges...
ABRAMS: He‘d go ask the jurors did you do this, did you not?
COLWIN: Yes. Could you be fair and impartial...
COLWIN: This is a new proceeding we‘re going to go through. You‘re going to hear testimony. Wipe your minds of everything you‘ve heard and especially since they‘re no longer sequestered. That would be my biggest fear as Geragos. My goodness, if they walked out and saw these folks out in the streets...
COLWIN: ... cheering and saying no more O.J. like that, it‘s a concern...
ABRAMS: It‘s a concern, but the bottom line is it‘s not going to get you anywhere.
COLWIN: Exactly right.
COLWIN: It‘s not. It‘s not. I mean talk to the jurors and you know what? When the judge talks to you face-to-face and says I hear that you might be thinking this, but you have to wipe your mind—can you be fair and impartial? Nine times out of 10, the juror says absolutely Your Honor. I‘m ready for...
ABRAMS: Let me play a little bit more. We talked earlier about how this penalty phase might play out in terms of the Rocha family, Laci‘s family, what they might say, how they might say it, so hard to listen to. Well, here‘s the other side of it based on what we‘ve seen publicity as to how Scott‘s side might appear.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JACKIE PETERSON, SCOTT PETERSON‘S MOTHER: Laci called me mom. She was like a daughter to me. We miss her and we love her, and you know someone out there did this and they‘re still loose.
JANEY PETERSON, SCOTT PETERSON‘S SISTER-IN-LAW: We don‘t condone his actions. It‘s nothing we make any excuses for. It‘s, you know, but he got caught in the middle of an adulteress affair and his wife went missing.
LEE PETERSON, SCOTT PETERSON‘S FATHER: We want the country to know our son is innocent. Our son is innocent and that‘s going to come out. What was done here is just a terrible unjustice.
JACKIE PETERSON: No one can imagine what it‘s like and no one can judge our son by his behavior because they‘ve not been there.
L. PETERSON: If you knew my son, if you knew his background and what a wonderful boy he is and has been all through his life, he‘s never had—you know, I mean the kid is—he‘s a perfect kid all the way through.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Very quickly Mercedes, that last point is the kind of testimony you‘re going to hear, not the he‘s innocent, he‘s innocent, right?
COLWIN: Exactly. That he‘s a good person. He‘s never done anything wrong. We love Laci, too. Because he will never take the stand...
COLWIN: ... because he‘s going to appeal and say that he was innocent of the charges, so you won‘t hear that. But certainly that will be it.
ABRAMS: All right, Dean Johnson, Daniel Horowitz and Mercedes Colwin, good to see you here in person.
COLWIN: Great to see you.
ABRAMS: Coming up...
JOHNSON: Thanks Dan.
ABRAMS: ... a federal judge sentences this man to 55 years in prison for selling pot, while two hours earlier he sentenced a murderer to half that time. The problem is the judge says he didn‘t have a choice. Is that an example of why these drug laws need to change?
And as the military investigates a Marine who shot an injured unarmed Iraqi fighter at close range, we ask couldn‘t it still be considered self-defense?
A lot of you writing in and I read your e-mails—abramsreport—one word -- @msnbc.com. Let us know who you are and where you‘re writing from.
ABRAMS: What‘s wrong with this scenario? A Utah federal judge sentences a man convicted of beating an elderly woman to death with a log to a 22-year term for aggravated second-degree murder, OK. Then two hours later, the same judge sentences a man convicted of selling marijuana while having a gun in his holster on his ankle to 55 years and a day in prison, which given there‘s no parole in the federal prison, effectively amounts to a life sentence for this man, Weldon Angelos, a 25-year-old rap music producer and founder of Extravagant Records. Weldon is married, two young sons. While he‘s a first-time drug offender, a police informer testified Weldon carried a gun during two marijuana sales. Police found other guns in Weldon‘s apartment when he was arrested.
The judge ruled the 55-year sentence is required by federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for three accounts of selling drugs while carrying a weapon. Judge Paul Cassell tacked one day to his sentence for the other 13 counts. And while protesters were demonstrating outside of court against mandatory minimums, Judge Cassell filed a blistering opinion saying in part to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for essentially the rest of his life is unjust, cruel and even irrational.
Adding 55 years on top of a sentence for drug dealing is far beyond the roughly two-year sentence the United States Sentencing Commission believes is appropriate. Judge Cassell also urged President Bush to commute Angelos‘ sentence to 18 years, a sentence at least nine members of the jury said they would support, at least on the average. And he called on Congress to set aside the law the he said forced him to impose the 55-year sentence.
“My Take”—this is prosecutors using a technicality. My regular viewers know I am regularly sticking it to defense attorneys for using technicalities and deception to try to help their guilty clients. And it‘s not often I accuse prosecutors of doing the same. But that‘s what happened here. After Angelos refused a plea deal that would have put him away for 15 years, the prosecutors did more than throw the book at him. They threw the whole bookcase. And as the judge pointed out in his opinion, the people who created the federal sentencing guidelines never envisioned this.
Under the guidelines, he would have gotten an additional two years for having a gun, not an additional 50. Remember, he never brandished the gun. And let‘s be clear, I‘m not excusing Angelos. He should serve time, but for example, if he had been tried in Utah state court instead of federal court, he would have received something like five to seven years.
Jerome Mooney is Weldon Angelos‘ attorney and Bill Sullivan is a former federal prosecutor who thinks the sentence is appropriate. All right. Ordinarily, I would go to Jerome first, but Bill, lay out why you think I‘m wrong on this one.
BILL SULLIVAN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Dan, it‘s a sad case, make no mistake, but here‘s the simple fact. The defendant was convicted of 16 counts. He was charged with six counts of 924 ©. As you know, 924 © is a commission of a narcotics offense while armed. He was acquitted of three of those counts and he stands convicted of the other three. The basic point here is that 924 © is, like it or not, a recidivist statue.
In Deal v. U.S. 1993 Supreme Court decision, a recidivist statute can‘t stand whether or not those acts are part of the same indictment or whether or not the defendant commits a crime, serves his sentence, and comes out and commits another crime. The prosecution chose to invoke 924 © because of the repeated sales undertaken by this defendant.
ABRAMS: We‘re talking about one time though. Remember, we‘re not talking about a guy who has been busted time and time again.
ABRAMS: We‘re talking about a guy who is getting busted once.
SULLIVAN: Dan, I understand, but read Deal v. U.S. Supreme Court. Doesn‘t matter if he‘s busted once or if he commits three offenses within the same contours of an indictment within three or four days. That‘s a recidivist according to the law. Now my point is this is a sad case. The prosecution could have exercised discretion.
ABRAMS: Yes, they could have.
SULLIVAN: They were plea negotiations that went forth.
SULLIVAN: I was not privy...
ABRAMS: They got angry. They got...
ABRAMS: He didn‘t agree to our deal and therefore, we‘re going to go after him like crazy. I think that prosecutors should be above that. I think...
SULLIVAN: Dan, I agree. I don‘t know the circumstances of this case.
However, the real thrust here what has to be changed...
ABRAMS: All right.
SULLIVAN: ... if something has to be changed is the legislation.
ABRAMS: All right.
SULLIVAN: That statue is on the books.
ABRAMS: Jerome Mooney, take it over.
JEROME MOONEY, WELDON ANGELOS‘ ATTORNEY: I certainly agree that the legislation needs to be changed. A recidivist statue ought to be a statue that punishes people for the behavior that they engaged in, then got caught, and have the opportunity to then reflect on it and not do it again. That‘s what we should be doing with recidivist statutes, not punish seriatim offenses. All of these offenses could have happened on the same day and we would have been looking at the same horrendous...
ABRAMS: Mr. Mooney, do you agree with the judge‘s assessment that his hands were tied?
MOONEY: I don‘t think so. I think that Judge Cassell—we asked Judge Cassell to hold the sentence unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment grounds and equal protection grounds. In his opinion, he gets right up to the point—he goes through all of...
MOONEY: ... tests, he gets right to the line where he is ready to step over the line and I guess figures his ankles were tied at that point. He can‘t make that last step. I think he could have made that last step.
ABRAMS: Yes, you know, I think you‘re going to have a tough time on appeal here too, which I‘m sure you know, that it‘s going to be an uphill matter when it comes to this law because it seems the court has ruled it. Let me—as a practical matter, let me be clear here. All right. Let‘s put up some of the numbers.
This is Angelos‘ sentence, all right, 738 months. Remember, he was selling pot. A kingpin of a major drug trafficking ring where death resulted 293 months. Aircraft hijacker: 293 months. Second-degree murderer: 168 months. Kidnapper: 151 months. Rapist of a 10-year-old child: 135 months. A rapist: 87 months.
These are the numbers the judge put in his opinion. Bill, how do you justify this?
SULLIVAN: Here‘s the simple fact. 924 ©, the commission of a drug trafficking offense while armed. And this stems from the assassinations, believe it or not, of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King through the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Crime Control Act of 1970 where legislatively it was determined, as you know, that drugs and guns go together, too frequently in our urban centers, and they are a violent, volatile combination.
ABRAMS: That‘s right. And so do the sentencing guidelines and they upped it two years they said he committed something—you add a gun to it. We‘re going to up it by two years...
ABRAMS: ... not by 50 years.
SULLIVAN: But the prosecutors in this case exercised their discretion. They had six independent counts of Mr. Angelos selling narcotics admittedly marijuana in this case. Again, they could have used some discretion there, but the fact remains six times he was selling with a gun. Guns were found not only in his apartment, but in his girlfriend‘s apartment.
They had the discretion and they brought six counts. The judge threw out three of them. We still have three. What does the law say—first offense, Dan, five years. That‘s reasonable. You do it again, it‘s 25 and it‘s got to be consecutive. You do it again it‘s another 25. That‘s the law. It‘s an unhappy law. It‘s an unfortunate law...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It‘s all part of the same...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It‘s an obscene law.
ABRAMS: Let‘s be clear. It‘s all part of the same event here. We talk about—again and again, we‘re talking about saying, Mr. Mooney, the reason I get so upset about this is because I do give it to defense attorneys in most of these cases because I generally trust prosecutors. And I‘ve said in some instances, I think they go for the death penalty way too often in some of these cases, even though I support the death penalty.
But the bottom line is when I feel like the prosecutors are crossing the line, it makes me very nervous because on this program, I do put so much faith in the prosecutors in the cases that they handle. You get the final word.
MOONEY: And there‘s a huge difficulty in maintaining that posture if courts are not given the power to be able to hold the prosecutors to the line. The courts are giving up the power more and more. Congress is taking it away. Congress is giving it to the executive and the Supreme Court has not seen fit to step in and say we‘ve gone too far.
MOONEY: And that‘s a real problem...
ABRAMS: I‘ve got to wrap it up...
ABRAMS: This is travesty injustice in this case.
SULLIVAN: Well the Ashcroft memorandum, Dan, encourages prosecutors to charge the most sustainable serious offense...
SULLIVAN: That‘s what these prosecutors were doing here...
MOONEY: And it says charge two 924 © charges...
ABRAMS: They could have charged the maximum without sort of sneaking in using this other statue to pursue this case and still Mr. Angelos would be serving some serious time and not make it so ridiculously disproportionate so that you‘ve got a murderer who is getting 22 years and this guy is getting 50.
I‘ve got to wrap it up. Jerome Mooney, Bill Sullivan good to see you again.
MOONEY: Thank you.
ABRAMS: Thanks for coming on. Appreciate it.
Coming up, as Palestinian officials mourn the death of Yasser Arafat, rumors spread that he was poisoned by Israel. And even though the French doctors are saying it‘s nonsense, my guess is that on the Arab street, the truth may not be quite as interesting as the conspiracy theories. It‘s my “Closing Argument”.
ABRAMS: Coming up, the problem with secrecy when it comes to the rumor mill in the Arab world. It‘s my “Closing Argument”.
ABRAMS: My “Closing Argument”—the problem with secrecy, particularly when it comes to the Arab world where rumors are often cited as facts and facts often dismissed as lies, where few sources of information that people actually trust, objective truth becomes just another theory. The latest example—Palestinians convinced that Yasser Arafat was poisoned by Israel.
The evidence? Well, there is none, apart from the fact that Israel could have killed Arafat at any time but chose not to. Arafat was treated and died in France. French law prevents doctors from releasing details about his condition without permission from the next of kin. That policy is sensible, but it highlights the broader risks associated with secrecy. People just speculate. For the past week, various Palestinian officials have fueled the rumors of Arafat‘s murder. Even Arafat‘s long time doctor chimed in, falsely claiming to Al-Jazeera TV that Arafat was in good health, making—quote—“poisoning a strong possibility.”
The French government decided to end the nonsense announcing today, shocker, Arafat was not poisoned. “Laman” (ph) newspaper quotes his French doctor, saying he suffered from a blood disease and a liver problem. But the damage is done. On the Arab street, even if there was a story about poisoning published by my high school newspaper and then discredited everywhere else, it would still have street credibility. They often can‘t or won‘t distinguish between fact and fiction. Conspiracy theories are often far more compelling. The truth pays the price for its blandness.
A significant percentage of people in the Arab world still believe the fascinating tale that 4,000 Jews were told to leave the World Trade Center before Israeli pilots flew the planes into the Twin Towers on September 11. Of course, this after even bin Laden has publicly taken responsibility. So bravo to the French doctors for trying to stop the rumors, but my guess, their medical analysis will not be as persuasive as a good story that fits the political and conspiratorial goals of the fablers.
I‘ve had my say, now it‘s time for “Your Rebuttal”. We reported on the story from Fallujah where a Marine shot and killed a wounded enemy insurgent in a mosque. An investigation immediately launched. The Marine withdrawn from the battlefield pending the results of the investigation. I said as a legal matter, war is not like the civilian courts and we have to consider all the circumstances. The question remains, what was going on in the soldier‘s mind and was it self-defense? Passionate e-mails continue.
Robert Grime in Zephyr Cove, Nevada. “To stay alive, you often develop an automatic reaction to what you perceive to be a threat to you and shoot before you‘re shot. Our soldiers should be given every benefit of the doubt before being judged.”
From Glen Rose, Texas, Kathy Mosley. “That video showed me that all of those kids were scared and stiff, afraid they might accidentally shoot each other, or step on a booby trap. I think their unending high state of fear and survival instincts caused him to react instinctively.”
Former combat Marine Rick Schelberg in Voorhees, New Jersey. “Get the cameras out of the combat situations. Let us do the job we were trained for.”
On the other side Ed Donald, Fairfax, Virginia. “Even if the insurgent was armed or rigged with explosives, it did not call for him to be shot in the head. This is a sad day for the United States of America.”
In Alabama Stacey Akines. “I understand that soldiers have to take precaution to protect themselves, but how far do those precautions go? I mean does it go as far as to shoot any Arab male that moves? Because one insurgent booby traps a body, are all bodies booby trapped?”
And Eric Kelly in Tampa, Florida—“What‘s more disturbing is the way in which our troops are seen as just doing their job. Let‘s face the facts. They‘re killing citizens of a nation who never attacked America.”
So Eric you blame our troops for the fact that the administration doesn‘t agree with your political assessments. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Finally, a story we brought to you back in January about Coral Eugene Watts, confessed serial killer, who admitted to killing at least 12 women, set to be released from prison 2006 until one of our viewers came forward as a witness to the murder more than 25 years later. After we put up the number for the authorities, today he was convicted.
Elizabeth Rivenburgh in Michigan writes, “I would like to commend you for taking such a passionate interest in the Coral Eugene Watts case. I find it quite strange that other media avenues were not giving it much coverage. Everyone in America should know that this confessed killer could be on the loose killing again.”
Agreed. I have to say I‘m proud of what we accomplished here, but they get the credit—the prosecutors, the victims here—your e-mails abramsreport—one word -- @msnbc.com. We go through them at the end of the show.
“HARDBALL” up next. Thanks for watching. See you tomorrow.
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