Guest: Walid Phares, Daniel Borochoff, Stacy Brown, Russell Yates, Dickie Scruggs, Victor Schwartz
DAN ABRAMS, HOST: Coming up, Islamic fundamentalists now providing aid to the victims of the tsunami, but that‘s not all.
ABRAMS (voice-over): A group with alleged ties to al Qaeda sets up a relief camp in Sumatra, putting up signs warning—Islamic law enforced. Some fear other relief workers, including Americans, could be targets for terror attacks.
And another ABRAMS REPORT exclusive—this in the Michael Jackson case—one of Jackson‘s relatives has been questioned this week about whether he was molested by the singer.
Plus, it‘s been three years since Andrea Yates admitted drowning her five young children in her bathtub. Now three judges have overturned her murder convictions. We talk to Andrea‘s husband, Rusty Yates.
The program about justice starts now.
ABRAMS: Hi everyone. First up on the docket, the death toll from the tsunamis slowly nearing 150,000. The State Department confirming the deaths of 17 Americans and another 20 presumed dead. The hardest hit area, Indonesia, where more than 100,000 are dead; aid is arriving there from around the world. But now there are reports Islamic fundamentalists are lending a hand as well, including a group with ties to al Qaeda that set up a refugee camp.
The group says it‘s helping with the relief effort. But some terrorism experts say it could mean trouble for American and other relief workers and soldiers. And at least one major aid agency is telling its staff not to fly in American helicopters.
Joining me now, MSNBC terrorism analyst, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Walid Phares, who follows these terror groups as closely as anyone, and president of the charity watchdog group American Institute of Philanthropy Daniel Borochoff to tell us how to prevent donations from ending up in the hands of terrorists.
All right, thank you both for joining us. Walid, you‘ve been following what these groups have been doing. Is this a serious problem?
WALID PHARES, PH.D, FOUNDATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: It is a serious problem, Dan, because the big picture is two days after the tsunami (UNINTELLIGIBLE) took place on all of the Web sites (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the jihadists linked to al Qaeda and their allies, there was one move to obstruct United States deployment of humanitarian assistance. That was two days after the tsunami occurred. And now with the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Islamic kind of related organization, one has to understand that they would want to (UNINTELLIGIBLE), if you want, to create a sort of a Taliban relief system and this morning (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Web sites of the jihadists are talking about not accepting aid from the Americans and other Web sites, this afternoon, were talking about even fighting or shooting against Americans.
ABRAMS: And you‘ve also said that some of these sites are suggesting that the Americans were responsible for the tsunami as well, right?
PHARES: It was striking, Dan, because not just the Web site, even Al-Arabiya TV three days ago aired a segment on the possibility—actually the story that this was projected by and created by combined effort by the United States...
ABRAMS: So wait. Al-Arabiya, which is considered one of the well watched stations in the Arab world is airing a program which is saying, hey, we‘re not saying it happened this way, but we‘re just going let you decide effectively whether the U.S. was behind an effort to make this happen?
PHARES: Al-Arabiya aired a segment, which basically started on the Web site. This is a system that starts on the Web site and ends up around the Arab world, basically saying that there are reports, to be concerned, of course, by the TV that are on that indeed the United States, Israel and India. They‘re a triangle of evil, is responsible because of the nuclear explosions that would have created next to Indonesia the greatest Muslim nation in the world.
ABRAMS: What do they have, like a debate on this Walid?
PHARES: No, that was a report, Dan. A report that they aired and it was multiplied like mushrooms in the entire Arab world. But it didn‘t last too long. Once the United States helicopters and Marines were shown on screens in Indonesia around the world, you know, helping kids, then they moved to segment two. That is to deploy themselves, their foreign aid,-- relief aid on behalf of the fundamentalists...
ABRAMS: But you‘ve also said that some have suggested that the U.S. soldiers who were there some were saying aren‘t really there at all actually, right?
PHARES: Basically what some of the Web sites including the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Web site is that, you know, these soldiers are not coming to help you. They first would help you and then they would want to occupy Indonesia in the same way they occupy Iraq. So we want to build our resistance. We want to have Fallujah even here. They use even the term.
ABRAMS: Wow. All right. Mr. Borochoff, how do you...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
ABRAMS: ... how do you prevent money that you want to go to aid, you want it to go to the region, and you want it to go to help people there to just about anyone who is helping there accept these Islamic fundamentalist groups.
DANIEL BOROCHOFF, AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF PHILANTHROPY: It‘s really important that the public not get on the Internet. There‘s a lot of foreign groups raising money out there and a lot of disguised groups and you don‘t want to give to a group you don‘t know. You want to give to an American-based group that has relations with grassroots groups over there. Otherwise, it‘s really risky and you also get the tax deduction, but it‘s too risky right now not to not do that.
I‘m also concerned here about the victims being told by the Islamic fundamentalists that they cannot—told not to take contributions from the sinful Americans. We ought to think about the victims, too. So I think this Islamic group has to be watched very carefully so that the American and other international relief workers can get in there and help these people...
BOROCHOFF: ... but Americans needs to be very careful...
ABRAMS: You‘re saying we actually need to go another step—not just prevent them from getting money, but actually maybe figure out a way to stop them because they may be actually hurting the people who are there by giving them bad information?
BOROCHOFF: These are very vulnerable people and at a time of great suffering, people turn to a stronger form of religion. And there is a risk here that it‘s going to be harder for the relief people—relief effort to help these people. There‘s also a concern too with dealing with the government. This situation is starting to become politicized. And there‘s certain governmental interests where they want to be in good with certain groups over there. So it‘s becoming very complicated.
ABRAMS: All right, Walid, what can we do in that effort?
PHARES: First, move with it very well by coming from the air showing the Muslim world, showing Indonesians, especially in Aceh province that we are indeed the only force in the world along with our allies who are able to save many and to get that help to them. The problem is the second stage—we are not on the ground. On the ground you have either the government on the one hand, of course, with all of the problems related to the political dimension of that and the other alternative, unfortunately, is what we see now, Islamic fundamentalist jihadist organizations of relief. Now, we‘ve got to figure out with the United Nations possibility of having a cooperation between NGO‘s on the one hand and the Indonesian government so it could support that system so that the victims and their families will be able to receive that aid without having to turn to the fundamentalist organization.
ABRAMS: And do you think, Walid, that we‘re going to have to go as far as to say—to figure out a way to say, look, you know, I know that they say they‘re providing aid, but they‘re just providing more problems than they are aid?
PHARES: Yes, but we cannot do it by ourselves.
PHARES: Again, it‘s like in any other spot. We need to have Indonesians and South Asians with us. That should be the next stage, government or NGO‘s?
ABRAMS: Yes. This is what Colin Powell, the secretary of state said—we don‘t actually have that. OK. Walid Phares and Daniel Borochoff, thanks a lot. Appreciate you coming on the program.
BOROCHOFF: Thank you.
ABRAMS: A reminder, the networks of NBC Universal including MSNBC are hosting a telethon next Saturday, January 15, to raise money for the tsunami relief.
Coming up, Michael Jackson‘s trial starts later this month. And now another ABRAMS REPORT exclusive. Investigators now interviewing one of his own relatives in connection with the case. We‘ve got the exclusive details coming up.
And it‘s been three years since Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. She was sentenced to life in prison. Yesterday an appeals court overturned her murder conviction. We talk to her husband, Rusty Yates.
Plus, we spent all week telling you how lawsuits have changed all of our lives in large part for the worst; today we focus on what can be done to make the system better.
Your e-mails email@example.com. Please include your name and where you‘re writing from. I‘ll respond at the end of the show.
ABRAMS: Coming up, another ABRAMS REPORT exclusive—investigators working on the Michael Jackson case have grilled one of Jackson‘s close relatives earlier this week about what might have or didn‘t happen to him. We got the details. Up next.
ABRAMS: We‘re back with another ABRAMS REPORT exclusive. We‘ve learned that earlier this week police investigators spent hours grilling Jackson‘s own nephew, Jeremy Jackson, the son of Jermaine. The question—did Michael—did Uncle Michael ever molest you.
Jermaine has stood by Michael‘s side since he was charged with molesting a 13-year-old boy and supplying him with alcohol. This latest revelation comes just days before a big hearing is scheduled to determine whether prosecutors can bring up during the trial any of Jackson‘s prior sexual, you know, allegations—these allegations about sexual offenses.
Jackson family friend and MSNBC analyst Stacy Brown is here now with the exclusive details about the day of questioning. Stacy, what do you know?
STACY BROWN, JACKSON FAMILY FRIEND: Well, on Tuesday, authorities approached Jeremy Jackson, the son of Jermaine Jackson, at his home in southern California. They spoke for over an hour. Jeremy was very cooperative. They asked him whether or not he‘d been improperly touched by his uncle and his answer was no. It never happened.
And, of course, as you would imagine, Dan, it really upset the family a whole lot. Jermaine currently is traveling in Bahrain and I had a chance to speak to him before we went on the air now. And he‘s—his attitude was well, you know, if they were going do it, then I‘m glad they got it out of the way and it shows that, you know, they‘re efficient and they‘re trying to cast a wide net.
ABRAMS: Now let‘s be clear. Jeremy Jackson is no longer a minor, correct?
BROWN: No, Jeremy turned 18 recently.
ABRAMS: Right. So they‘re asking about things that happened, what, many years ago?
BROWN: Well from what I understand, Dan, Jeremy‘s name came up about 10 years ago during the first investigation. But because of his relationship and his age and the fact that he is Jermaine Jackson‘s son who, as you stated at the top of the show, who‘s been a big supporter of his brother, Michael‘s, so I guess they—my guess is that at that time they didn‘t feel that they would get anywhere.
ABRAMS: So Jeremy agreed to speak with them, right?
BROWN: Yes, there was no pressure, no force and—from either side from what I understand. There was no pressure. In fact, Jeremy invited them inside the house. From what I‘m told, they spoke in front of the house for maybe about five minutes or so and before Jeremy cordially invited them in.
ABRAMS: And do you think this had anything to do with the police theory about practice and procedure of Michael Jackson meaning, you know, did he—did he offer you any—quote—“Jesus juice?” Did he have you look at porno magazines, stuff like that?
BROWN: Well I‘m quite sure. I know some of the questioning had to do with Jeremy, for instance, just received a Porsche for his birthday, his 18th birthday and some of the questioning was along the lines as to whether or not Michael Jackson bought the car.
ABRAMS: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) meaning could have been a payoff.
BROWN: Exactly. And Jermaine reaffirmed to me just a few minutes ago, a few moments ago, anyway before I got here that he and Margaret Maldonado, Jeremy‘s mom, bought the car together as a gift to Jeremy.
ABRAMS: Now did Jeremy spend a lot of time alone with Michael?
BROWN: Jeremy, from what I understand, he and a few other of Michael‘s nephews have spent a lot of time with Michael. Whether or not he spent time alone with Michael that I can‘t answer because that I don‘t know the answer to. I do know that Michael has spent a lot of time with his nephews.
ABRAMS: About how—do you know about how long the questioning lasted, Stacy?
BROWN: Yes, it lasted for over an hour. Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour and 20 minutes or so.
ABRAMS: And how many officers were there?
BROWN: I was told that there were two investigators there.
ABRAMS: Two investigators and that Jeremy Jackson invited them in. They questioned him about any and all things and then they left.
BROWN: And then they left. Yes.
ABRAMS: All right, so—and now I assume the family, as a whole, when you say Jermaine is basically throwing up his arms saying, look, they want to do this, fine, but I assume the family as a whole is not happy.
BROWN: Oh not at all. It‘s caused an uproar. And I‘m sure that we‘ll probably be hearing a lot more in the days to come. And we‘ll probably hear something about this next week during those hearings. They‘re livid. Michael Jackson, from what I was told, is extremely livid and obviously his siblings are livid as well.
ABRAMS: All right. As always, we shall continue to follow this story as will Stacy Brown. Stacy, good to have you back. Thanks a lot.
BROWN: Thanks Dan.
ABRAMS: Coming up next, Rusty Yates‘ life was turned upside down the day he found out his wife had killed their five children. He stood by her even though she was charged and eventually convicted of murder. We get his reaction to the latest news that Andrea Yates‘ conviction has been overturned. Rusty Yates joins us live up next.
Plus, all week we‘ve talked about how civil lawsuits have changed America. Today we take on the tough task of what do we do to fix the problems?
ABRAMS: A dramatic win for Andrea Yates yesterday. A Texas appeals court overturned her conviction for drowning her children. Before we talk to her husband, Rusty, it was the testimony of a psychiatrist for the prosecution that seemed to sway the judges. Dr. Park Dietz falsely testified about consulting on an episode of “Law & Order” where a woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity after drowning her kids. Now the suggestion that Andrea might have seen the episode and thought, hey, maybe I could use that as an excuse. Dr. Dietz defended himself earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. PARK DIETZ, PROS. PSYCHIATRIST IN YATES MURDER TRIAL: When I was told that I might have been in error, I immediately researched the issue and wrote a letter to the prosecutors explaining what I thought had happened there. I offered to go back and testify at my own expense while the trial was still on. They said the letter would do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Yates is awaiting her next move and prosecutors are vowing to fight.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First we will apply for a rehearing before the full—appellate court. If they affirm this decision of this three-judge panel, then we will have the opportunity to apply to—for the Texas court of criminal appeals for further appeal.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Now Yates admitted to police she killed her five children. Yet she was only tried and convicted of killing three of them. Throughout, her husband Rusty has stood by her side.
“My Take”—I said it last night. I, too, am surprised by this ruling and think in the end, the judges felt sorry for Andrea Yates. Rusty Yates joins us now. Rusty, thanks for coming back on the program. Appreciate it.
RUSSELL YATES, ANDREA YATES‘ HUSBAND: Thank you.
ABRAMS: First, let me just get your reaction to this. You‘ve got to be surprised?
YATES: I‘m very surprised; yes I just went in to work yesterday as normal and you know, got the call. I knew the judges were going to come down with a ruling soon. But I didn‘t really give her much of a chance because it‘s a very conservative court.
ABRAMS: So you had not been holding out much hope that this court was going to rule in your favor.
YATES: No, I think the, you know, the evidence is there—it‘s just the history of the court is that they rarely, you know, reverse a decision, you know, like this. So...
ABRAMS: And what‘s interesting is that you had told me that you had a conversation with Andrea this very weekend about the whole issue of the appeal, didn‘t you?
YATES: That‘s—yes, that‘s true. I saw her on January 1, this past Saturday and we talked about it a little bit and she said, do you, you know, do you really think it‘s worth pursuing? And in many respects, I think she just feels a lot of guilt and she doesn‘t want to put everyone out and she certainly doesn‘t seem to want to face another trial. And, you know, what I responded to her was, well, you know, regardless of where you may feel you belong or you know, at least as citizen you deserve a fair trial and you didn‘t get one because the key state witness, you know, fabricated a story to support the prosecution‘s case. And even after the trial when one of the jurors found out that Park Dietz had lied, he wrote a letter to the judge explaining that he wouldn‘t have found Andrea guilty had he known Park Dietz lied.
ABRAMS: Does she want a new trial?
YATES: I think she‘s going to be very happy and I think it‘s going to give her a lot of hope—the fact that the court found in her favor. I think, you know, as I‘ve said, I think the cruelest thing I‘ve ever witnessed was the state putting her through that—just the agony of seeing the photos of our children‘s bodies and pointing their finger at her.
I mean here‘s a woman who would never have harmed our children. I mean she was a wonderful mother. And you know, the only reason she did was because she was psychotic. And you know, she already feels so, you know, just distraught over all of what‘s happened and really in many respects through no fault of her own and here the state puts her through that agony and she certainly would not want to go through that again.
ABRAMS: Let me play a little piece of sound of an interview with Andrea where what you‘re talking about is I think reflected.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did Satan ever talk to you? You ever hear Satan‘s voice?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I was in the hospital last year or the year before, I was sleeping and I heard kind of a deep growling voice, he said my name.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Rusty, how cogent is she now? I mean does she—you know, for example, this is a big legal ruling. This is a big day in her life. Does she appreciate what this ruling means?
YATES: Yes, I think in many respects, I think she does. I mean for the past—you know, I‘d say back in June/July timeframe, in July she relapsed and had to go to Galveston, she was very sick. Since that time, since the time of her return to Skyview Prison, she‘s been very, very well. She‘s been doing great.
When I saw her on the first, she seemed a little flat. That‘s really, you know, for a long time, the past few years whenever I visit her, I‘m not ever sure who I‘m going to see, you know, who I‘m going to visit that day. I don‘t—you know, because she‘s—her condition does change. But—and she hasn‘t been stable. And I‘d say overall she‘s doing relatively well now although like I said she did seem a little flat last Saturday.
ABRAMS: Rusty Yates, if you could stick around with us for a minute. We‘re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we‘ll continue our conversation with Rusty Yates.
And our legal series on how lawsuits have changed America wraps up. We‘ve laid out all the problems in the system. Today we finally say how can we fix them.
ABRAMS: Coming up, his wife admitted drowning his five children in a bathtub; now an appeals court has overturned Andrea Yates‘ murder conviction. What‘s next for Rusty Yates if she‘s free? Could they ever be together again? We‘ll ask him, first the headlines.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you would not have taken their lives, what did you think would happen to them?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They would have continued stumbling.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And where would they end up?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In hell.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In hell?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: Andrea Yates, the Texas mom who was found guilty by a jury and that conviction has now been overturned. And it sure has frustrated the prosecutors who never expected this to happen. Now they are appealing that ruling, but ultimately might have to retry Andrea Yates once again.
We‘re joined again by her husband, Rusty Yates. Rusty, have the prosecutors given you any sense of whether they‘re going move forward and try Andrea again or is there any chance that they may say, you know what, she‘s going to end up in a mental hospital anyway. As long as she stays there for a long time, we won‘t prosecute her again.
YATES: Well, you know, the prosecutors have never talked to me. They came to the house.
ABRAMS: They actually investigated you for a while, didn‘t they?
ABRAMS: Remember early in the case they were throwing out allegations—oh maybe Rusty this, maybe Rusty that. I had to go on the air every day...
ABRAMS: ... and say stop blaming Rusty Yates.
YATES: I think there were more angry viewers than anything else...
YATES: ... prompting that. But, you know, the prosecution has never consulted me on anything that they‘ve done. I mean they came and looked at my house, you know, the day after the tragedy or a couple of days after the tragedy. And the only other time I ever heard from them was, you know, many months later when they wanted me to do—to talk to Dr. Dietz and, you know, my impression was they hired Dr. Dietz really just to, you know, weave together some fancy story about, you know, with some quasi rational explanation for why Andrea did what she did and that seems to be his pattern.
So I didn‘t want to talk to him. All I was going to do—you know he was going to twist whatever I said into his story, so I didn‘t want to talk to him. But my point was basically that the prosecution never contacted me about anything.
ABRAMS: Here‘s what prosecutor Joseph Owmby has been—said yesterday about this most recent decision.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOSEPH OWMBY, PROSECUTED ANDREA YATES: We had been in trial for months, literally, three weeks of testimony, I believe, in the case. And that this whole thing was 10 minutes of trial time and it wasn‘t material to the outcome of the case. So we were disappointed that it happened, disappointed that there was this cloud, but not overly concerned that the case would be reversed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: And, yet, it was. All right, Rusty, let me ask you about your relationship with Andrea. Now, you filed for divorce, did you not?
YATES: Yes, I filed in July.
ABRAMS: And what happens now? I mean is she—does she understand that? Does she know that? Is she comfortable with that? Was that with her blessing?
YATES: We‘ve—yes, we‘ve talked about it and she understands. I mean I think she‘d rather not be this way. But she understand and we‘ve had some good talks about it. We talked about it for quite some time. And you know, in Texas, you have to wait 60 days before you know, you can go back and file the final, you know, papers with the court.
And really, you know, things have been going kind of slowly. I mean I really don‘t know why, but so far Andrea and I basically agree on terms. It‘s just I think her attorney is kind of moving kind of slowly. I‘m not sure, so we‘re really not—we‘re hoping to make some progress in the next couple of months and get it resolved, but it hasn‘t—it isn‘t official yet.
ABRAMS: Do you intend to keep visiting her and stand by her side throughout the process even after the divorce?
YATES: Yes, I‘m going to continue to support her and you know, right now the plan is to visit her once a month, first Saturday of every month. And, you know, I will continue to be her friend, you know. And she really doesn‘t have a lot of—I hate to say it, but supportive people in her life, you know, and she needs that. And you know, she and I shared a, you know, time together and a life together for some time. And you know, when we visit, we‘re able to reflect back on that and remember the kids fondly, and you know, we usually have a pretty good visit.
ABRAMS: But it is clear that if she is ever better—mentally, so to speak, and she is free, that you will not be with Andrea as husband and wife again?
YATES: That‘s right. I mean we were—you know, it‘s kind of ironic in a way because you know, one thing we did have was trust, you know, all the while we were together and then this was just such a gross breach of trust that even though I know she was sick, it—the fact still remains that from my perspective it came out of nowhere and you know, every night before she went to bed I would ask her, I would say, Andrea, is anything bothering you?
Anything you‘d like to talk about? And she would shake her head no. Every single night she was sick and you know, this came - this—like I said, literally out of the blue and it‘s just such deep seeded hurt I just can‘t get past it.
ABRAMS: So you can understand...
ABRAMS: I apologize. I was going to say so you can understand, but you can‘t forgive.
YATES: I can understand and forgive, but I can‘t have the relationship I had with her before. Understanding to me leads to forgiveness, you know, and I can have that. I have had that from the beginning. But because she‘s hurt me so much, I can‘t have the same type of relationship, the same type of trusting relationship that I had with her before.
ABRAMS: And you said that she had hoped that that wouldn‘t happen. That you wouldn‘t get divorced?
YATES: You know neither of us ever expected that. I mean you know, we had the kind of relationship where it was just a given that we were always going be together. You know, and that was—that decision took me a long time to come to. It was really—I struggled with that for literally years coming to that decision. And took my time, you know, thought it through and, you know, realized that you know, really it would never work.
So, you know, God, you know, intended for us to be together, you know, any marriage to last forever. But you know, this world is broken in many respects and, you know, and things like this happen that are unexpected and hurtful, you know, you really just have to try to pick up the pieces and make the most of what‘s left. And that‘s what I‘m doing.
ABRAMS: Rusty, final question. What are you hoping for, for Andrea? Are you hoping for a new trial? Are you hoping this goes away? What are you hoping for?
YATES: My hope for her is that they‘ll dismiss the charges. You know, my feeling is they should have brought a psychiatrist in early—in fact, a simple thing would have been just to talk to the jail doctor, Dr. Ferguson who treated her. Dr. Ferguson would have said she was completely psychotic and they could have made a determination at that time not to press charges, that she‘s insane and sent her to a mental hospital.
Instead, they decided to, you know, file charges against her, not just murder charges, but capital murder charges and seek the death penalty and spend $1 million on the trial and cost our family untold, you know, like many tens of thousands of dollars plus a lot of hardship and all for nothing. I mean—all—you know, they hire an expert who lies on the stand. It‘s all you know, negated and we‘re back to square one.
And I‘d like to see them do the right thing this time. I‘d like to see them dismiss the charges against her and send her to a hospital. And eventually I‘d like to see, you know, once Andrea is stable on medication, once they find the right medication for her, when she‘s stable, deemed safe, and, you know, has some kind of support in society that she can be released...
YATES: ... and go on to live a productive life.
ABRAMS: Russell Yates, great to have you back on the program. I appreciate you taking the time.
YATES: Thank you.
ABRAMS: Coming up—yesterday we talked about how it seems some people will sue over just about anything, trying to cash in on what has become a lawsuit lottery. We close our legal series with possible solutions to the problem next. Some trial attorneys not too happy when we rolled out our legal series this week with the title “Lawyers v. America”. I‘ll explain why I fault the lawyers at least in part for the lawsuit explosion. It‘s my “Closing Argument”.
ABRAMS: All week long, we‘ve been taking a look talking about civil lawsuits, the effects both good and bad they have on our system. Today we talk about how to fix any problems. One person who definitely thinks there are some problems, the president. Like us, he‘s also been speaking all week about lawsuits and how he thinks they‘ve spun wildly out of control. Today he was in Clinton Township, Michigan.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have too many junk lawsuits in our system. Pure and simple. And frivolous and junk lawsuits cost our economy about $240 billion a year. That‘s a problem.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ABRAMS: The president is focusing his reform on three main areas of change—limit what he refers to as (UNINTELLIGIBLE). All right, they include shielding drug companies from punitive damages like the makers of Vioxx and Celebrex and lawsuits where the drug had been approved by the FDA. It‘s also part of an initiative that would place a $250,000 cap on medical malpractice suits for non economic damages, pain and suffering many cases.
Also, when it comes to class-action lawsuits, the proposal would make it mandatory for national cases where plaintiffs or defendants come from different states to take it into federal court rather than in state courts. And finally asbestos lawsuits, the proposal there, to set up a fund using moneys from the companies being sued.
All right, “My Take”—when it comes to punitive damages, damage is designed to punish, there‘s got to be a way to have the state or the government get the money designed to punish rather than the individuals and the lawyers. As for caps on non economic damages and medical malpractice cases, I support it, but there should be exceptions in the cases of doctors who are repeat offenders, for example, or who made errors that go beyond just a mistake.
Joining us now, two of the best-known lawyers on this issue, Dickie Scruggs, a plaintiff‘s lawyer best known for his role in the 1998 master tobacco settlement. And Victor Schwartz, general counsel to the American Tort Reform Association. We got the two big shots on the show.
All right, let me start with Dickie Scruggs. Am I wrong on this?
DICKIE SCRUGGS, PLAINTIFF‘S ATTORNEY: Thanks for the primetime coverage, Dan, but you‘re wrong on this and that tort reform is not a water cooler issue. Americans aren‘t sitting around the lunch counters talking about tort reform.
ABRAMS: Maybe they should be.
SCRUGGS: Well I disagree with you and I trust the American public and their sense of priorities. They‘re much more concerned about being abused by their HMO or their health insurance carrier or being over billed by their not-for-profit hospital intentionally and the war in Iraq and other major issues like that. It is quite amazing to me that the president is taking his eye off of the ball and the Republicans in Congress and pushed this issue, which is really not an issue of great concern to most Americans to the front of the legislative agenda when we have so many other very, very pressing and important issues to the American people.
ABRAMS: But Victor Schwartz, it is an issue that when you say to them, do you think we need to make changes in the legal system and it always depends on how you phrase the question, but you know, it seems that a lot of people support the idea of making some changes when it comes to the ability to sue in this country.
VICTOR SCHWARTZ, AMERICAN TORT REFORM ASSOC. COUNSEL: Dan, I have great respect for Dickie, but I disagree on this. A woman can‘t get access to medicine because doctors aren‘t practicing anymore. A hundred and sixty-one doctors have quit in Madison County, Illinois. An OB-GYN woman is moving to Colorado because insurance is cheaper. It affects what new products they get...
ABRAMS: So what‘s the solution? What‘s the solution?
SCHWARTZ: Well I think the president is on track for most things. I think first, anybody who brings a baseless lawsuits, and Dickie Scruggs would never do that, but there are some who do it. He should pay. Not some small business. Second, cases that involve people from all over the country should be in a federal court, not some judicial hell hole state court that‘s going to be biased against an out of state defendant. And as far as encouraging drug companies to report—hey, punish them if they don‘t follow what the FDA does, but say you‘re not going to be punished if you haven‘t committed any wrong...
ABRAMS: What about the issue, Dickie, of making lawyers pay? I mean should lawyer who file frivolous lawsuits have to pay?
SCRUGGS: Of course they should if they file frivolous lawsuits and lawyers don‘t file frivolous lawsuits because juries generally see through frivolous lawsuits and award absolutely nothing.
ABRAMS: But you well know that a lot of the time someone will file a lawsuit in the hope that they can get a settlement so that say you know what, it‘s not worth it to us to even deal with this and they‘ll pay the person off.
SCRUGGS: You know, it‘s quite interesting that Victor, who is an excellent advocate for his—for the American Tort Reform Association and the insurance industry and those that fund the American Tort Reform Association—it‘s quite interesting that they trust juries in criminal trials and death penalty cases but don‘t trust juries when it comes to insurance companies, hospital, and health care. I think it is a double standard that‘s sort of a phony crisis that they try to generate now and push to the head of the legislative agenda in front of so many more pressing issues for the American people.
ABRAMS: You want to respond Victor?
SCHWARTZ: Yes. First of all, we like juries. It‘s some judges make the rules wrong and it affects every American. People can‘t get access to medicine; development of new products is slowed. And these stupid class action things that come in the mail where somebody just knows instinctively—cab drivers know, regular working people know that they‘re not getting any benefits at all that some lawyers are getting it and that some are not.
And Dickie Scruggs is one of the top lawyers in America. He‘s never filed a frivolous lawsuit. But there are a lot of people who do exactly what you said, Dan. They file a suit. They know that they can get some settlement. The cost of settlement is less than the cost of defense and it‘s legal extortion. Ask any small businessman or woman in America what troubles them and it‘s those type of lawsuits.
ABRAMS: Dickie, let me read you the statistics from the American Tort Reform Association. They say that tort cost grew by 5.4 percent in 2003. That the tort system cost 246 billion in 2003 or—sorry -- 845 per person. In 1950, they say the cost was $12 per person.
SCRUGGS: Well lots of things cost more than they cost in 1950. The truth of the matter is, there are far few lawsuits being filed today than there ever have been. There are far more jury verdicts coming in, in general than there ever were. There are far more jury verdicts being reversed than there ever were. There is no crisis here that‘s not being manufactured.
Now let me add this. If people aren‘t getting health care because the insurance companies are gouging the physicians and using the physicians more or less as an excuse, hiding behind the white coat and raising their insurance rates because of their losses in the investment market, it‘s not the lawyer‘s fault. It‘s the insurance company‘s fault.
ABRAMS: Dickie Scruggs and Victor Schwartz, two of the best. Thank you both for coming on the program. Really appreciate it.
Coming up, I usually get e-mails with your comments on our topics, our guests—I‘ve been hearing from a lot of lawyers lately. They‘re not happy with our series here. I‘ll respond in my “Closing Argument”.
ABRAMS: Coming up, some attorneys out there not happy with the name of our legal series. I‘ll tell you why I think there are some “Lawyers v. America” out there.
ABRAMS: My “Closing Argument”—some final thoughts on our “Lawyers v. America” series. Now some trial lawyers have complained about the title of the segment, “Lawyers v. America”. In fact, one group of trial lawyers have been trying to send angry e-mails to my personal e-mail address that have instead be directed to a special junk file and we are saving them and considering posting their addresses on our Web site for to you flood their inboxes. So stay tuned for that.
But if you look at the title “Lawyers v. America” like a lawyer, there‘s no doubt that it doesn‘t truly represent what we evaluated this week. In fact, I never particularly liked the title, but it does represent part of the problem, certain lawyers. One of my producers, Joel Walton (ph), was in a car accident a few weeks back. He‘s been getting recruiting letters from lawyers ever day since.
But that doesn‘t mean that all lawsuits or all plaintiffs‘ lawyers are ambulance chasers or take frivolous cases. But those are or who do, have had an enormously negative impact on our society and our system. And in that case, it is the “Lawyers v. America”. I hope the discussions have helped you decide for yourself where the lawyers are helping or hurting.
Bottom line, when these lawyers‘ groups complain that lawsuits are not the problem, that‘s just nonsense. They are. It is the lawyers‘ fault in part. There are other problems. The insurance company, the negligence of a few, sue-happy plaintiffs, and in truth, jurors willing to award often disproportionate awards. But the lawyers drive the operation and in the end, for them to deny any and all responsibility for the problems with our current system, I think is just downright dishonest or delusional.
Coming up, if you‘ve got a map of Washington State published by the U.S. Census Bureau, you might want to take a glance at the name of a lake near Seattle. Here‘s a clue (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
ABRAMS: I‘ve had my say, now it‘s time for “Your Rebuttal”. Last night in part four of our lawyer‘s series, we focused on the American lawsuit mentality. The legal lottery, if you will, the sense of entitlement among many who think, he got it, she got it, why shouldn‘t I? Some of you not pleased including attorney Betty Ann Rogers in Easton, Connecticut.
“I would bet that you and every other person who is critical of our civil justice system would waste no time hiring an attorney if you were injured the way my clients have been.”
There is no doubt that I might. I am a combative person who would hire a lawyer in a second if I was wronged. But I think my definition of being wronged may be different from some who believe that any time something bad happens, they should sue. I‘ve had a lot of opportunities to sue where I‘ve decided against it. So far I have not filed any lawsuits.
Also last night, an appeals court threw out Texas mom Andrea Yates‘ conviction for drowning her children. The judges ruled that false testimony from the prosecution‘s expert about a “Law & Order” episode should have ended the trial.
Ann Elk in Marlboro, New Jersey asks “What happens to Andrea Yates five years from now when the mental health doctors decide she‘s able to leave the hospital and go back to the community. Will she have more children? And who will watch her take her meds each day?”
Finally, last night I said her case stirred debate over the legal standard for mental illness and I used the terms postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis interchangeably. Jonathan Reich in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Please be careful not to confuse the names of Paula Yates‘ condition. She suffered from postpartum psychosis not postpartum depression. They are two different things and the difference is important.”
Well Jonathan, I would ask you to be careful not to confuse the name Andrea Yates with Paula Yates. They are two different people and the difference is important.
“OH PLEAs!” They should have seen this months ago. Something called Lake Butthead. It seems one of the wacky census bureau workers took it upon him or herself to change the name of a body of water located just northeast of Seattle. It was called Bevis Lake, but in several official bureau records, the name has been changed and it‘s listed as Butthead Lake. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Get it? Like Beavis and Butt-head (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?
A land surveyor with the State Department of Natural Resources said it‘s not unusual for small lakes in out of the way places to have different names because of variations in county, state or other official (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
ABRAMS: They‘re helping me out there because I‘m coughing. We‘re pretty positive there‘s no actual Lake Butthead. I can just picture the two guys sitting around saying hey check it out. It‘s called Bevis. Let‘s change it to Butthead. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) lakes are cool.
That does it for tonight. Coming up next, “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews. Have a great weekend.
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