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Florida Storms Leave at Least 19 Dead; Has NFL Moved Beyond Racist Past? Actress Brandy's Car Crash Debated

Aired February 2, 2007 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everybody. Thanks so much for joining us.
Here are some of the stories we're bringing out in the open tonight.

Black head coaches will make history on Super Bowl Sunday, but has far has the NFL really come in breaking free of its racist past?

Plus: an African-American NFL's player story of being tasered sheds light on police stun guns and race.

And a popular singer and actress under investigation after a fatal crash, is she being singled out because she's a celebrity and has some money?

We start tonight with a developing story, the tragic disaster in central Florida, where storms and a vicious tornado tore through the area earlier this morning. At least 19 people are confirmed dead tonight, hundreds of homes destroyed, and thousands of people still without power tonight.

Meteorologist Rob Marciano is in Lady Lake, Florida. He joins me now with the very latest.

You have been touring the horrible destruction all day long. You have also spoken with survivors. What have they told you about what is left?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, first of all, they had a -- a harrowing night, as you can imagine. Some people are left with nothing, some people just left with the -- the experience of going with a night when this storm passed.

Some people had the storm itself and a tornado itself skip over this house, but -- but not -- not this particular house. This -- this home certainly took the brunt of the twister -- the path, the core of the path, right through its backyard.

And this is not your typical track home. It is not a trailer home. This is a home that is built on a solid foundation. It's built with two-by-fours and four-by-fours studs and brick. This thing was literally pulverized as this tornado crept right through here and continued on that open field.

In this room, in the corner of the house, is where an elderly woman slept. Miss Edna Suggs (ph) slept in this -- in this bed right here. And the walls literally fell on her.

We spoke her earlier today. And this what she had to say about her experience .


MARCIANO: Boy, are we so, so grateful that you made it out of this situation alive and, for the most part, well. It's -- how do you feel about going through what you did last night?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just very thankful that I am alive and that the lord saved me.

MARCIANO: Tell me about your experience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, it was just horrible for the walls to cave in on you and the water coming in on you. But the lord takes care of you.


MARCIANO: As did her husband, Gene (ph), who was sleeping in the room through that door, same situation -- the roof, the walls literally collapsing on him, burying him in debris.

He managed to crawl out of that debris and come to his wife, who was screaming for his help, pulled all the debris and the wall fixtures off of her, so that they could crawl out. Amazingly, they were left with just some bumps and bruises, some cuts and scratches, and very, very thankful, obviously, that they made it out OK with their lives.

But, as you know, Paula, 19 people are confirmed dead, many more injured. This is a storm that stretched, the storm itself, over -- over 70 miles. But the tornado cut through several homes and -- and communities. And the devastation left behind is almost too much to look at -- Paula.

ZAHN: The pictures are really hard to look at tonight. The scary thing about this storm is that this tornado touched down in the middle of the night. So, how much more warning did anybody living there get?

MARCIANO: Well, in Florida, unlike the Midwest, they don't have sirens here that go off when they have tornado warnings.

So, the only -- if they happened to have their TV or radio on, or, ideally, a NOAA weather radio, they would have had about 10 or 15 minutes of warning, because there was a warning issued by the National Weather Service for a tornado that was coming right through this area.

So, they had that. But, if you were asleep, without a NOAA radio on, you had absolutely no warning at all. And all you -- the -- the warning you got was, in this case, your house collapsing upon you.

ZAHN: I will tell you, that picture tonight behind you is absolutely stunning, Rob, and gives us an incredible -- idea of just how incredibly powerful that twister was.

Rob, thanks.

Joining me now from Lady Lake, Florida, Brenda Ammons, the music minister of the Church of God, which was devastated in the storm. She has also been out there surveying the damage since 3:00 this morning.

I know it has been a long day for you, Brenda. Tell -- describe to us what you have seen.

BRENDA AMMONS, MUSIC MINISTER, LADY LAKE CHURCH OF GOD: Well, it has just been unreal. When we got to the church this morning, it's just a lot of heartfelt tears, really weren't expecting what we came across.

But we are getting over it now, and we know that we are going to move on and that everything is going to be OK.

ZAHN: Are you standing in front of what used to be the church or anywhere near it?

AMMONS: No, ma'am. We are actually across the street in one of the subdivisions that was taking out -- taken out by the tornado, except for, like, one or two homes.

ZAHN: And there is absolutely nothing left of your church tonight? It was flattened?

AMMONS: No, ma'am, nothing at all. It is -- it's gone, our church.

Last night, when -- or early in the morning, when we were -- some of our church members thought they had seen some aerial views and -- from the helicopters, and they thought that the sanctuary was -- remained standing, and it was just the roof that was taken off.

But, this morning, when we got here, and when -- at daybreak, we got to come down and got to get into the parking lot. And we realized that everything was -- everything is destroyed.

ZAHN: Was anybody that was a church member injured? I know you talked about enormous property losses.

AMMONS: No, ma'am.

No one -- no one was at the church at the time. But we had some of our members that lived directly across in this subdivision. And there -- they were one of the ones that their home was saved. All they actually lost was some of the skirting around their mobile home, and a couple of trees come down, and I think a couple of broken windows. And the rest of the homes around were just flattened, too.

ZAHN: Having grown up in the Midwest, I suffered through a bunch of tornadoes. And you never forget what they sound like. Describe to us what you were awakened by. What do you remember?

AMMONS: Well, I actually was not awakened.

I was up at my home. I live in Wildwood, about -- about 15 minutes away from here. And I was actually sitting together, putting my music together for Sunday. And I just heard some major wind start happening. And next thing I know, my husband is coming in the living room, and was saying, we have been hit by a tornado.

But it was sort of to the left side of us. One of the homes right around the corner from where we live was totally destroyed. But it was just -- the wind was just unbelievable, the sound of it. I -- I have never been in one before, so, that was something that was very strange and different for me.

ZAHN: Yes, it is this very horrific sound. It sounds like a train and a truck all barreling through at one time, a sound you never want to hear again the rest of your life.

Brenda, good luck to you. I would say you and your fellow members were very lucky that there was no loss of life, unlike the -- the rest of the area, where some 19 people weren't so lucky.

Brenda Ammons, thank you. Good luck with the rebuilding.

We are going to be tracking the story for you tonight throughout the night. And we will get a live update from Anderson Cooper, who is in the disaster zone tonight.

But, right now, I want to turn back to bringing controversial issues out in the open, like one surrounding this Sunday's Super Bowl. It is the 41st annual, but the first year in which a black coach leads a team. In fact, both coaches are black.

But, in a sport where two-thirds of the players are African- American, why did it take so long?

Keith Oppenheim looks at race in the NFL.


KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Doug Williams isn't celebrating just yet.

DOUG WILLIAMS, PERSONNEL EXECUTIVE, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: When you talk about race in the National Football League, I do feel that we have come a long ways. But I do feel we have got a long ways to go.

OPPENHEIM: Williams knows something about coming a long way. In 1988, he became the first black starting quarterback to make it to the Super Bowl, the first to break the stereotype that a black man wasn't smart enough to be the lead player.

WILLIAMS: I think it's a little tough for African-Americans to really say it's an even playing field.

OPPENHEIM: Williams' frank conversation with me gave some context. For sure, with two African-American coaches heading to the Super Bowl, the usually touchy subject of race in sports has hit a high note.

Indianapolis' Tony Dungy has been beaming.

TONY DUNGY, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS HEAD COACH: I'm very, very proud. And, as an African-American, it's going to be special.

OPPENHEIM: And Chicago's Lovie Smith knows he's making history.

LOVIE SMITH, CHICAGO BEARS HEAD COACH: I feel blessed to be in that position.

OPPENHEIM: But, behind the euphoria and the pride, Doug Williams painted a more complex picture. Now a personnel executive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Williams explained the challenges black candidates currently face in much of the league when it comes to getting top coaching jobs.

WILLIAMS: It has to be something that the owner feels comfortable with and wants to lead this football team and think that he can lead the football team.

OPPENHEIM (on camera): But you use the word comfortable.


OPPENHEIM: Why should we even care if a front office is comfortable with a black coach?


WILLIAMS: That's the code word. It's not so much that's the way I feel. That's the way it is. And I don't know whether sometimes that the people who are doing the hiring or whoever they is hiring can feel as comfortable with an African-American sometimes, because, you know, a lot of times, culture is different.

OPPENHEIM (voice-over): To some extent, culture has been changing in the NFL.

(on camera): Consider that more than two-thirds of the players in the league are black, but just six head coaches are black, less than one-fifth. Some see that as disappointing racial inequality. But others point out, that's a big jump from five years ago, when the league had just two black head coaches.

CYRUS MEHRI, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: What the black coaches are facing, have been facing, is that they have to be superstars to even be considered.

OPPENHEIM: Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights attorney who, with the late Johnnie Cochran, wrote a report in 2002 which criticized the league for not providing opportunities for blacks.

MEHRI: So many very talented former players who were -- were denied an opportunity to get into football and coaching or front office as a scout. And, so, these doors were closed. OPPENHEIM: In 2003, the doors began to open wider, after the NFL adopted a rule which requires teams to interview minority candidates whenever a head coaching job opens up.

Marvin Lewis, head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, believes the new rules are making a difference.

MARVIN LEWIS, CINCINNATI BENGALS HEAD COACH: It's forced people to dig a little deeper, to look a little further, and to make sure that they are really taking the opportunity to understand and get to know where the qualified people are.

OPPENHEIM: Some hope Sunday's game will have a lasting impact, that the image of two black men leading teams in America's biggest game will send an inspiring message to anyone who has a dream of playing or coaching in the NFL.

LEWIS: What I think blacks are excited about is an opportunity to -- that the sky's the limit. And, now, with Lovie and Tony having reached the pinnacle game, I think, for young coaches, for our sons, it gives them something to shoot for.

OPPENHEIM: Keith Oppenheim, CNN, Miami.


PHILLIPS: And tonight's "Out in the Open" panel will tackle the debate over racism in the NFL.

But, coming up next: An African NFL player shot by a cop with a stun gun, does his story reveal a hidden bias among police to use stun guns more often against minorities? You see what the statistics show -- when we come back.


ZAHN: We are talking about race in the NFL and the 41 years it took to finally see a black head coach in the Super Bowl.

Our "Out in the Open" panel tonight, Kevin Blackistone -- you have seen him on ESPN's "Around the Horn" -- national radio talk show host Steve Malzberg, who covers sport for many, many years -- yes, he is a really old guy.


ZAHN: And Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins -- Dr. Boyce Watkins, I should say -- author of the book "What If George Bush Were a Black Man?"

Good to have all of you with us tonight.

So, if you look at how long it has taken us to get us to this point, it this because owners have strong prejudices against blacks as coaches? KEVIN BLACKISTONE, ESPN'S "AROUND THE HORN": Well, I mean, I don't think it is anything but that. I mean, it is even more outrageous that it took from 1921, when the first black coach was ever hired in the NFL, until 1989, when the second black coach was ever hired in the NFL.

I mean, this is a -- this sport is behind basketball. It's even behind Major League Baseball, which is thought of as stodgy. And, up until now, since the Rooney rule was passed, which I think you talked about...

ZAHN: Which basically mandates that you have to...


ZAHN: ... at least interview...


ZAHN: ... a black candidate.

BLACKISTONE: Up until now, it was a real struggle for talented, aspiring black men in pro football to even dream about becoming a head coach, because it just didn't happen.

ZAHN: How alive is the perception today, when you look at these numbers, that -- that blacks are better suited, because of what great athletes they are, and they don't want them in the front office, nor telling the players what to do on the field, because they don't think they are smart enough? Is that perception alive and well?

BOYCE WATKINS, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: Well, we have always had a country that was ready and willing to allow a black man to run and jump and lift things.

Allowing a black man to actually control the -- the intellectual mechanism behind whatever you are doing is something that people are still getting used to. And I would say that the racism in the NFL is really a matter of tradition, sort of, holding people back from doing the right thing, because, effectively, owners in -- in -- choose coaches through the old-boy system, which was built on a racist foundation.

So, black men were not allowed in that old-boy system. So, when you have the Rooney rule come into play, that forces them to widen the search, then, it helps the entire NFL, because you are forcing them to find the best person qualified for the job. That is what progress we have made found so far.

ZAHN: Are white coaches smarter? Is that what the...


ZAHN: ... the fundamental problem is with perceptions among owners here?


MALZBERG: Greg Gumbel said just the other day that this is nice now, but, by next year, everybody is going to forget this. Black coaches are not smarter or dumber. They're not better or worse. It depends on the players you have.

They're making a big deal about this. I can understand that. But, when it is over, it is over, and you move on.

Look, Ron Rivera, who is the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, could become the next coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He is Puerto Rican. Does he count? Or is he not going to count? Well, the -- I mean -- I mean, this is so ridiculous, this whole thing of counting the numbers and the numbers game. It is a quota system.

Because 70 percent of the players are black, what does that mean? So, in corporate America...


ZAHN: ... one-fifth of the coaches are black.


ZAHN: I mean, isn't there something askew with those statistics?

MALZBERG: In corporate America, if a corporation have 75 percent whites, does that mean that a black man shouldn't be running the company? People will say, of course not.

Well, what difference does it make how many black players are in a league compared to how many coaches are in a league?

WATKINS: But you're comparing apples and oranges.

When you are talking about putting a wide receiver on the field, you are looking for the guy who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, or whatever.


WATKINS: You can't really manipulate that.

But, when you are picking a coach, that's very arbitrary. You are picking the guy that -- whom you think is the smartest. And the reality is that, for I don't know how many years, we just decided that a black man isn't the smartest guy that should be running the team.

MALZBERG: No. There's a lot more than smarts involved in picking a coach. You're picking the man who you think is going to motivate, who is going to organize, who is smart. There is a whole ball game going on there.


WATKINS: And black men were rarely given that opportunity. And, so, I am not saying that black men should take over the coaching booth, the way they have taken over the field. But black men should be given opportunities. That is all they're asking for.


ZAHN: Do you think there is almost, though, a -- a patronizing sense of amazement here, that you have got two black coaches heading off against each other on Sunday next?


BLACKISTONE: Yes, there is, because -- because, to me, with these two guys, getting to the Super Bowl is not an amazing story. To me, that's a historical footnote.

To me, I am more excited that, on the same Sunday that they made that advancement, the Pittsburgh Steelers were about to announce that they had hired a 34-year-old guy from Minnesota who no one had ever heard of by the name of Mike Tomlin, who, oh, guess what, we saw his picture and found out he is black. That is the way the system...

MALZBERG: And how did that happen in a racist league?

BLACKISTONE: Well, that's the way...

MALZBERG: How did that happen in a racist league?


BLACKISTONE: Well, I will tell you, it happened -- it happened because of the Rooney rule.


BLACKISTONE: And, in fact, of course, Rooney comes from the Pittsburgh Steelers.


BLACKISTONE: Why did Marvin Lewis get hired in Cincinnati? Mike Brown, the boss in Cincinnati, admitted that, until the Rooney rule came up, he never even -- he never even considered interviewing a black man for any -- any position that he had in the front office or as -- or as head coach.


ZAHN: Very quickly.

MALZBERG: It's fundamentally wrong to force an owner of a club or a business to have to interview a minority. That is fundamentally wrong.

ZAHN: All right, team, stay right here. We have got plenty more to talk about. And we want to hear from you out there, as well. Please send us the e-mails tonight to And our panel will weigh in on your thoughts a little bit later on. You don't even have to be nice to them. These guys are tough guys.


ZAHN: They can handle anything you throw their way.


ZAHN: A black NFL player's frightening experience helps brings our next story out into the open on whether police are too quick to pull the stun gun trigger on minorities.

And, then, a little bit later on: singer Brandy facing prosecution after a fatal car crash. Is she being singled out because she is famous and rich? We will bring that one out in the open in a little bit.

We will be right back.


ZAHN: So, what it is like to be targeted by police and shocked with a 50,000-volt taser because of the color of your skin?

Hundreds of African-Americans in Houston say that is what they have experienced, racial bias at the end of a stun gun. One of them is NFL lineman Fred Weary, who claims that police there are trigger- happy in their treatment of black suspects, something Houston police strongly deny.

But, tonight, our Ed Lavandera helps us bring this racially- charged controversy out in the open.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On a November afternoon a 6'4'' black male weighing more than 300 pounds was pulled over on a Houston highway for failing to use his signal to change lanes.

Police say, the driver became verbally combative, and then made a threatening move toward the officers, so one officer tasered him. He dropped to the ground. The driver turned out to be Fred Weary, a lineman on the Houston Texans football team.

CHARLES DAVIDSON, ATTORNEY FOR FRED WEARY: I think the police, these two officers, drew the completely wrong impression and decided they were going to stop with this guy and they were going to jack with him.

LAVANDERA: Weary's attorney says he's left wondering if race played a role in the altercation. Weary was charged with resisting arrest, but a judge dismissed the charges. The case has triggered a high-profile controversy, raising questions about whether Houston police officers are unfairly using the taser weapon against African-American suspects.

(on camera): According to the department's statistics, in the last two years, 63 percent of all suspects tased by Houston police officers were African-American. But that number represents less than 1 percent of the total number of arrests made during that time.

(voice-over): The mayor is asking for an independent review of how the department uses the weapon. Until the report is complete, City Councilwoman Ada Edwards is calling for a moratorium on the use of tasers.

(on camera): When you look at those statistics, someone who might say, oh, maybe it's just a coincidence. You don't see that?

ADA EDWARDS, HOUSTON, TEXAS, CITY COUNCIL MEMBER: I don't think that, if it was 60 percent white males in that age group, I don't think that it would be looked at as a coincidence. I think people would at least like to know why.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Police Chief Harold Hurtt says race does not play a factor in taser incidents. He says that, because disenfranchised minorities are more likely to interact with police, that that explains why more African-Americans have been tasered. Fifty percent of all suspects arrested by Houston police in the last two years were black.

HAROLD HURTT, HOUSTON, TEXAS, POLICE CHIEF: We're not indiscriminately going out, selecting individuals, and taser them. We are -- in most cases, 60 percent of the cases that we use them against African-American males, or black males, as a result of calls from people in the community or their own family.

LAVANDERA: Supporters of the taser even suggest that the weapon has saved lives.

Houston City Councilman Adrian Garcia worked as a police officer for 24 years. He says, since the taser was employed on the force, there have been 40 cases where police officers could have used their gun, but instead used the taser.

ADRIAN GARCIA, HOUSTON, TEXAS, CITY COUNCIL MEMBER: The taser, I had understood it, would be a alternative to a firearm, that it would be a device that could be used to prevent a physical confrontation from escalating into a deadly-force confrontation.

LAVANDERA: Officers stunned Fred Weary with two taser shots. Houston police say the officers acted properly. But Weary says the taser shot numbed half his body, and that was more painful than anything he's ever experienced on the football field.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Houston.


ZAHN: Let's turn this over to our "Out in the Open" panel tonight, Kevin Blackistone, Steve Malzberg, Boyce Watkins.

Glad to have you all back.

Let's review the numbers again. When you look at how often this has happened to black suspects, the numbers say it all: 64 percent of the cases involving blacks; Latinos, 23 percent; whites, 12 percent.

What's the deal here? Are police more afraid of black suspects than whites?

WATKINS: Well, I talk to my father about this a lot, because he happens to be a high-ranking police official in my hometown. And, so, I try to get both sides of the picture.

And the reality is that, when you are a black man, which I have been for the most of my life now, you know that...


ZAHN: And when did that happen, by the way? I just want to know.


WATKINS: Since the operation. Since the operation.



ZAHN: I haven't -- I didn't know you before the operation.

WATKINS: Yes, yes, and since the surgery.

But, you know, I have always known that, when you go deeper into the South, when you are a black man, you do not deal with the cops the way you would if you were white. It doesn't mean all cops are bad. A lot of cops are very good people. They are honest, just like the rest of us. But there are some cops who abuse their power.

And it is easiest to abuse your power against people who you don't think can fight back.

ZAHN: Is that what it is?


ZAHN: Are they -- do you think...

MALZBERG: Oh, my gosh.

ZAHN: ... these cops are trigger-happy in Houston? MALZBERG: It is very -- and, with all due respect, it is nice to hear that some -- most cops are nice. Not all cops are bad. The number of bad cops is an infantile percentage. Cops are good.

Look, this guy was charged by these cops with resisting arrest. He is a big, bulky football player. I don't know...

ZAHN: All right. Now, I talked to him one on one a couple weeks ago.


ZAHN: And he denies that he ever behaved the way the cops describe him as behaving.

MALZBERG: All right.


MALZBERG: Well, the police chief is black.

ZAHN: He said he never put up a fight.

MALZBERG: The police chief is black.

WATKINS: That doesn't mean anything.


MALZBERG: The guy -- the Hispanic officers said how -- how -- how thankful he is that they have tasers.

Look, you don't -- each case has to be taken on its own merits. We don't know what went on there. I wish they had cameras. But we don't know what happened here. And, as for the 64 percent, we don't know what happened in each one of those cases either.

ZAHN: Kevin, what about that? Because you hear the police chief talk, and he said, yes, it seems like a disproportionate number of blacks are being hit with stun guns.


ZAHN: But the black suspects are the ones more -- blacks are more often to interact with police.

BLACKISTONE: Well, the black community does have a very interesting relationship with the police. We often need them a lot more than anybody else. And, oftentimes, we wish they had never showed up more than anybody else.

I mean, we know that deadly force is -- is something that affects us more often when we come in contact with cops than anybody else. Right now, it happens to be the taser.

And the taser happens to have elements of deadly force as well, because we know that there are people who have died from being tasered. And there a lot of cities around the country right now looking into using the taser and what kind of impact it has on people that it is used upon. But we rarely in journalism I know ever talk about whether or not anyone other than people of color and particularly males of color are being -- are being hurt more by what police are doing when they come into the community. So I don't think there is any question that this is a real problem in the black community.

STEVE MALZBERG, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: New York City lowered the murder rate from over 2,000 a year, over 2,000 and David Dinkins the African-American mayor New York to now, 500 from Giuliani to Bloomberg. You know whose lives are being saved? Minority lives are being saved.

BOYCE WATKINS, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY: But the black mayor or the black police chief, and Clarence Thomas is black.

MALZBERG: Yeah, so?

WATKINS: And there are a lot of black people who don't care about black people.

MALZBERG: Well, that is ridiculous. Clarence Thomas, to say he doesn't care about black people?

WATKINS: Well, we won't talk about Clarence Thomas today, but the reality is that the criminal justice system as a whole does have a bias against black men. We are not talking about just the police force. We're talking about the system as a whole. You look at the millions of black men that are incarcerated. That's destroying black families (INAUDIBLE). Some of them did and also just because you commit a crime, does not mean the punishment fits the crime and many times we are disproportionately punished for the crimes that we have committed. You look at - for example, down in Florida A&M University, two black men, two Kappas in the Kappa Alpha Phi fraternity was sent to prison for two years for hazing. That's never happened in a white fraternity. So the punishment must fit the crime and that doesn't always happen when you're black.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR, PAULA ZAHN NOW: Kevin, final thought, are the cops targeting these blacks because they are racist or because of the fact that Steve pointed out, crime statistics would show that they commit a majority of the crimes?

BLACKISTONE: Well, I certainly don't think that the police forces in America and certainly in a large one like Houston are without people who may carry some prejudices and biases into their work. And those may very well spill out into the community. And it is certainly looking like right now Houston has a problem with the way that police are interacting with black males in particular.

ZAHN: Fred Warey (ph) has said that he will sue the city unless they explain the disproportionate numbers we are talking about here tonight. Don't laugh, Steve. He is going through with this.

MALZBERG: I'm not laughing. Of course, he's going to sue the city.

ZAHN: All right. We're going to get your take on all of this a little bit later. Please e-mail us tonight at We're going to read them and get our panel's reaction to what you have to say a little bit later on.

The next story I want out to bring out in the open, a popular singer and actress behind the wheel of a crash that kills a woman. Is she being investigated because she is rich and she's a celebrity? And then a little bit later on, something we rarely hear about out in the open.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Ted Rowlands in southern California. An accident at this gas station dramatically changed two people's lives and in the future could change even more. That story is coming up as PAULA ZAHN NOW continues.


ZAHN: We see our panel is poring over your e-mails now and I don't see any of them flinching yet. You are being far too kind to them. If you want to weigh in on what we have been talking about, e- mail us at I'm really serious about that. We're going to read them on the air and get our panelists' reactions in just a moment.

The next story we are bringing out into open is a volatile mix of a deadly car crash and what some say is an attempt to scapegoat a celebrity. Police say singer and actress Brandy rear-ended a car on an LA freeway back in December and killed another driver, but tonight, Brandy supporters claim that she is under investigation and being targeted by authorities just because she is famous. Entertainment correspondent Brooke Anderson has that story from Los Angeles.


NAJEE ALI, PROJECT ISLAMIC HOPE: Brandy is being used as a political trophy by politicians. Brandy is being targeted based on her celebrity status.

BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Twenty-seven- year-old singer and actress Brandy Norwood came to fame on the television show "Moesha" but now she is finding infamy because of a tragic accident.

911 TAPES: There is just a massive car accident.

There are two vehicles. I think there's a fatality.

ANDERSON: On December 30th, policy say Brandy caused a deadly car crash on an LA freeway, rear ending (INAUDIBLE) Aboudihaj's car and triggering a multi-car collision. Aboudihaj, a 38-year-old mother of two died after she arrived at the hospital.

ROCKY DELGADILLO, LOS ANGELES CITY ATTORNEY: We will treat this case like every other case, and take it very seriously, because someone died.

ANDERSON: LA city attorney Rocky Delgadillo is now deciding whether to charge Brandy with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

DELGADILLO: In order to file charges, we have to prove that she was negligent, any conduct that would foreseeably cause harm.

ANDERSON: Neither alcohol nor drugs was involved in the accident according to the California Highway Patrol. The city attorney says an investigation of this nature is routine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was an accident.

ANDERSON: But others including Najee Ali of the civil rights organization Project Islamic Hope, assert Brandy is being used as a political scapegoat.

ALI: Brandy in the African-American community has been one of our best role models. We feel she is being treated differently than other celebrities.

ANDERSON: This isn't the first time a sober driving celebrity has been involved in a fatal collision. In 1987, Matthew Broderick was in a car crash in Ireland in which two women were killed. In 2001, actress Rebecca Gayheart's vehicle struck and killed a nine-year-old boy. Neither star went to prison. Gayheart's settled the family's wrongful death lawsuit.

LOFTY MRICH, ATTORNEY FOR ABOUDIHAJ FAMILY: This tragedy rocked this world (ph).

ANDERSON: Brandy is also facing a wrongful death lawsuit. The parents of the victim are suing her for $50 million.

MRICH: This is not a revengeful act on their part. We believe that it is fair and we believe that the amount needed to deter a person like Brandy from driving recklessly in the future.

ANDERSON: Brandy's publicist issued this statement. The accident was a terrible tragedy and Brandy's heart goes out to Alateb (ph) Aboudihaj's family. But for legal reasons, we cannot comment on this lawsuit. An accident that took the life of one woman forever changes the future of another. Brooke Anderson, CNN, Los Angeles.


ZAHN: And coming up next, now that we have heard Brandy's story, we will bring out in the open something rarely spoken about, how people actually deal with the knowledge that they caused catastrophic, even fatal accidents.


ZAHN: Today we are bringing out into the open something that no one really wants to talk about. We often hear stories about the victims of horrible car crashes, but we rarely hear about the devastating trauma experienced by those who accidentally cause fatal collisions. In a split second, their lives are changed forever. Here is Ted Rowlands.


When they shaved the bone down, the heel bone and they sutured it back up and I don't have much movement.

ROWLANDS (voice-over): Take a look at Sandra Buonopane's left foot and you easily imagine the pain she must have endured from an accident four years ago. She says it changed her life forever. Karen Conde says that the same accident changed her life forever as well, because she caused it. It happened in southern California. Sandra was on vacation with a group of friends.

SANDRA BUONOPANE, INJURED IN CAR CRASH: We were filling up the car, because we were going to make our way to Las Vegas.

ROWLANDS: Karen, who was on her way to a business meeting says she saw this gas station ahead and suddenly decided to stop for some water.

KAREN CONDE, CAUSED CAR CRASH: As I moved into the next lane, it just, I felt an impact, and from there honestly, everything went into slow motion.

ROWLANDS: Karen had hit a pickup truck sending it out of control toward the gas station.

CONDE: And I remember hearing glass shattering and just the sound of metal.

BUONOPANE: At first I hear the noise, the loud screech. Then I look over and it was kind of a blur. I just dropped the gas pump and started running.

CONDE: Seconds later, I heard another huge crash and screaming and a lot of screaming.

ROWLANDS: Karen instantly knew she had caused a terrible accident. Sandra was pinned between a car and a gas pump. Her leg and foot were ripped open. After the accident Sandra would go through what would become a grueling and very painful process of recovery. Karen on the other hand was not hurt at all during the accident. She went home to her family. But, she fell into a deep depression.

CONDE: It was like nothing I've ever experienced. It was a physical pain, a physical pain because of what I did to Sandra. I hurt somebody bad. And she wasn't going to have much of a life. So I thought, so I thought if she is not going to have a life, then I don't deserve to have a life either.

RABBI KEN WEISS, HIT PEDESTRIAN: The bible doesn't say very much at all about it. ROWLANDS: Rabbi Ken Weiss knows how it feels to be in a catastrophic accident.

WEISS: It changed my life forever.

ROWLANDS: Twelve years ago, Rabbi Weiss was driving along a dark road from his synagogue to his son's school when he hit somebody.

WEISS: I didn't know what it was, I thought that somebody had thrown a brick or something like that. So I stopped and I looked back and I saw someone lying on the road.

ROWLANDS: It was a 57-year-old woman. Rabbi Weiss had killed her.

WEISS: I spent my life trying to affirm life and enhance life and make it better and give people solace and comfort and here I've been involved in an accident that took a life. And, you know, what is it all about? I felt -- I felt demoralized I guess. I felt as though I -- I wasn't sure I had value as a person.

ROWLANDS: Both Rabbi Weiss and Karen Conde say it took more than a year before they could even begin to get over their accidents. Both say they were forced into difficult legal battles, pitting them against the people they really wanted to apologize to, not fight. For Karen Conde, the experience was so difficult she recently started Forgotten Victims, a support group for people who cause catastrophic accidents. But what about Sandra Buonopane? What does she think? Because of the accident, Sandra spent weeks in the hospital and over the past four years, she has endured multiple surgeries to save her foot.

BUONOPANE: I am confused at her Forgotten Victims. Am I a Forgotten Victim or is she the forgotten victim?

CONDE: I was wanting desperately to talk to somebody.

ROWLANDS: After watching video of Karen talking about what she'd been through said on Forgotten Victim's website, Sandra says she has mixed feelings.

BUONOPANE: I don't think Karen Conde is a victim at all. She is a person who caused an accident. I think - I know it must be very emotional for her to think about that, but I have gone through so much more.

CONDE: We have to focus on the person that got injured and we have to focus on the family of the person that got killed, absolutely. There is also the person that caused the accident and they, it was a true accident. They weren't on drugs. They weren't drinking and it was a true accident. They go through their own hell. The guilt of what they did to that person, the guilt of what they did to that family can be so overwhelming that they end up being a victim in a sense as well.

ROWLANDS: Sandra, who lives in Boston says that her life is getting better. Still, she knows her foot which may require more surgery will be a lifelong reminder of the accident. Ted Rowlands, CNN, San Diego.


ZAHN: And coming up, Anderson Cooper joins us live from the scene of that tornado disaster in central Florida and then our panel weighs in your e-mails next. They are reading them now. Wait until you hear what all of you had to say. We will be right back.


ZAHN: We have been getting your reactions to the stories we brought out in the open this hour. Our panel is standing by so let's read some of your e-mails right now. We get started with this one from Adam about black NFL coaches. He writes, given the history of racism within organized sports and other areas of employment, it is obvious that simple steps like expanding the interview process should be utilized. Whites who can't see this basic truth need to explore the depth of their racial bias. He is basically saying you are racist.

MALZBERG: Of course that's ridiculous.

ZAHN: ...without saying that directly.

MALZBERG: Right of course, code words, code words, but...

ZAHN: ... because you are not in favor of the Rooney (ph) process that mandates these team owners...

MALZBERG: Well, why stop at sports? Every business, all through corporate America, let's set quotas. You have to interview a certain amount of blacks, Asians, Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, et cetera, right down the system. Make the whole system a quota system. How's that for Adam? Maybe Adam would like that.

WATKINS: That's not the answer and really, when you implement something like this, you are not saying that these owners are bad people, that they want to do bad things. What you are doing is --

ZAHN: Well, historically, that is what a lot of people have said about that.

WATKINS: People have said that, but I don't believe it. What I believe is that we have a system of hiring that has a racist foundation and therefore in order to deal with the racism system, you must implement a systemic strategy that will eradicate the racism from that system, because racism is built into the fabric of the institutional infrastructure by society. It is not something that people just have in their hearts and minds.

ZAHN: Let's move on to this one from Alice G who writes, that when we as people stop identifying individuals according to the color of their skin, in this case African-Americans, then and only then will we be able to say we have accomplished a huge racial divide. Guilty of defining yourself as an African-American or black man? BLACKISTONE: I do it proudly, but I mean, it's hard not to do that in the context of what we are discussing tonight when you look at all the data and you look at all the statistics and we are the ones being tasered. We are the ones that have been - we're shut out of the NFL when it comes to head coaching jobs for 60-some years. We are the ones who suffer all of these maladies in society, so it is kind of hard not to look around and identify yourselves as such when all of these things...

MALZBERG: In case you haven't noticed, the blacks suffered great injustices for more than 60 some years. That has been remedied. The fabric (INAUDIBLE) of the rules have been fixed (INAUDIBLE) legally and you can't discriminate against you because you're black legally. That is the law now, wasn't back then 60 years ago, 50 years ago. It is now.

BLACKISTONE: As a matter of fact, it took two lawyers, Johnny Cochran and Cyrus Mary (ph) to bring together the Rooney rule to bring pressure upon the league because they were threatening a lawsuit.

MALZBERG: How do blacks succeed in this country? How did you succeed? How did he succeed?

BLACKISTONE: I got an opportunity to prove that I could succeed.


WATKINS: I was very (INAUDIBLE) my job at Syracuse University but the fact was I was the first black finance professor they hired in over 100 years of existence and I was not the first smart man to apply for that job. So sometimes the law does do good things in terms of achieving equality. And it is not good for black people. It's good for America. Don't forget that.

ZAHN: We got to leave it there. Kevin Blackistone, Steve Malzberg and Boyce Watkins, have a great weekend you all. Appreciate all of your perspectives here tonight. Right now I want to take a quick biz break.

On Wall Street, the Dow lost 20 points, Nasdaq up 7.5 points. The S&P gained over 2.

This is going to be the most expensive year yet for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The White House today requested an additional $100 billion to fund the wars in 2007. Now that's in addition to the $70 billion already approved by Congress.

A jury found in Atlanta today found a former Coca-Cola executive assistant guilty of conspiring to steal Coke's trade secrets and trying to sell them to rival Pepsico. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Next, we're going to go live to Florida for the latest on tonight's breaking news. Tornadoes have killed at 19 people and left hundreds homeless, many more than that without power. We will get the very latest from Anderson Cooper as you can see, live on the scene when we come back.


ZAHN: Now back to our lead story tonight, the state of emergency in four Florida counties after this morning's killer storms. In Lady Lake, Florida tonight, we find Anderson Cooper. He is getting the story firsthand. He joins us live from the heart of the disaster zone. Exactly where are you tonight, Anderson?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're in Lake County, Lady Lake, which as you know Paula, is the hardest-hit county. Of the 19 fatalities so far reported, all of them have been reported from this one county. You can see really, just driving in here, the devastation is everywhere. This is a home that was ripped off of its foundations, shoved about 50 feet probably into this grove of trees, and you know, we have become all too familiar with this sort of thing from hurricane Katrina, but you can see into this person's house, the front door here lying on the ground. Someone already went through, found that doll, found some pictures. There's a picture over there, but very little is salvageable from this home and block after block, Paula, throughout this entire county, you will find homes like this. It is a scene very reminiscent of hurricane Katrina, Paula.

ZAHN: Anderson, tell us about some of the people you met today and what they were affected by. Obviously, there has been a tremendous loss of life and homes all but leveled.

COOPER: There have been a lot of tears shed in this county, I can tell you that, Paula. There is a church very close nearby here that has been completely destroyed. I talked to a lot of the parishioners there. They are upset. They're still in shock, of course, but they are resolved. They're determined to rebuild. They say the church is just - that's just a building. The church is really the people and the people are alive and remain strong. They plan to have Sunday services.

And I spoke to the mother of a girl who was killed just a couple hundred feet from where I was standing. They found her earlier this morning, a high school student. Her name is Britney May (ph). She wanted to go into the Marines. That dream of course now will never occur and her mom is of course still in shock. So there is a lot of people here still trying to figure out what comes next, Paula.

ZAHN: A storm hitting in the middle of the night, very few people getting the warnings. They should have or could have had they been awake. Anderson, thanks, we will see you at 10:00. Meanwhile, the network's coverage will continue all day tomorrow as well starting at 7:00 a.m. in the morning. Thanks again for dropping by here tonight. Glad to have you with us. We hope you have a really good weekend. Hope to see you Monday.


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