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Holder Hospitalized; Kennedy Testifies During Trial; Ukraine Tensions Rise; Bank Robber Claims "Adrenaline Addiction" From Military Service as Mitigation

Aired February 27, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Ashleigh Banfield in New York City. And we are getting late-breaking word that the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, is right now in the hospital. This because apparently earlier today he was experiencing symptoms of shortness of breath and faintness.

So he was rushed off to the Washington MedStar Hospital, where he is right now presumably undergoing tests. There's very little that we know about the circumstances right now of the attorney general. Serious, though, that he - serious enough that he's been hospitalized. Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, has been watching to find out if there are any more of these late-breaking developments.

You know, we know he is a 63-year-old man who is extraordinarily hard working. But are we finding anything else about the conditions that he was dealing with today, Evan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, you know, he was having a normal day. He starts - he was having his normal staff meeting with some of his top aides at about 9:30 when he experienced some faintness, shortness of breath and that's when the decision was made quickly to take him to the hospital. We don't know much more about the circumstances than that, Ashleigh.

Right now we're told that he is alert and he is conversing with his doctors. He seems to be OK. Obviously it's a bit of a scare for this to happen. You know, it's a pretty -- he had a pretty packed day and he was supposed to be at the White House this afternoon for an event. And, you know, he has a whole bunch of issues that he's been working on in recent weeks. So we know that, as you said, he's had a pretty hectic schedule working on everything from gay rights issues to voting rights that he's been working on the last few weeks.

BANFIELD: And at this point have they sort of gone into, you know, coverage mode where the deputy has taken on his assignments today? Is the business of the nation continuing as the business of his health is being looked at?

PEREZ: Well, that's right. He -- in the circumstances where the attorney general is not able to do the duties of his office, the deputy attorney general, Jim Cole, would take over. We don't know that any of that has been done. Obviously he might be in the hospital for the rest of the day and probably maybe resting for another couple of days, but we don't know that they have done anything formal to transfer the duties of the office to the deputy attorney general. The attorney general, Holder, is awake and alert, talking to his doctors. So it's probably not something that they would do unless he is incapacitated.

BANFIELD: You know, the president's health is monitored regularly. The tests are made public. His conditions are made public. Is that the same protocol for the attorney general? Do we know how often he's had checkups and what the current status of his health is?

PEREZ: You know, no, they don't really go through that formal process of telling the public about his medical checkups. You know, I see him all the time at the Justice Department and he looks, you know, like in pretty good shape. Maybe lost a little weight after having gone through, you know, a pretty tough first four years in office.

And I'm sure that, you know, those long days, you know, he's up before dawn reading the briefing reports on terrorism and other issues that are on his plate. And then he heads downtown. He regularly debriefs the president. He's over at the FIB getting the latest threat briefings in the early morning and then he's, you know, working late into the evening. You hear from people who say that, you know, he's sending e-mails at like 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. after his family has gone to bed. So, you know, he does have a very long day, a very long, hectic day and I'm sure five, six years into office, it is something that takes a toll on anybody.

BANFIELD: I would think so. I mean that's a - that is an incredible schedule for that many years in a row. So, Evan, continue to update us.

PEREZ: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: Let us know when you find out anything about his condition and certainly our thoughts are with his wife and children. I'm sure that they're terribly nervous about what this might mean. And we certainly don't want to speculate and we do wish him the very best. Evan Perez, our justice correspondent live in Washington, thank you.

I want to move on to some other news as we continue to monitor that story. You know, it's always big news when a member of the Kennedy family ends up in a courtroom, especially on trial, especially when they take the witness stand. It doesn't happen very often. Kerry Kennedy, who is the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, is all over the headlines today.

In fact, look at "The New York Post" this morning. Just read that headline, "pity me, I'm an or orphan." Pretty mean if you think about it. Kennedy apparently to the jury, my dad was assassinated. That's not actually what she said, but they're accusing her of playing the daddy card right after taking the oath in the trial where she is facing impaired driving charges for having taken an Ambien and gotten behind the wheel.

"The New York Times" certainly told this story a little differently, saying that she had mentioned her father mainly to point out that her misdemeanor trial would never have made the news were she not a Kennedy. May not have even made it into court. At the heart of the case is her claim that she took the sleeping pill accidentally, mixing up perhaps two bottles that were right beside each other, extraordinarily similar pills that look the same too. Sadly, she crashed that car into a tractor-trailer in 2011 -- or 2012. Our Jean Casarez was there for Kennedy's testimony and she just left the courtroom to join us live to sort of fill in some of the color.

I don't know if you're able to see this "New York Post" headline, Jean Casarez, but it just seems awfully mean.


BANFIELD: Really, honestly, it just seemed mean. She was answering questions about who she is, who her father was. Certainly never did she look at a jury and say, pity me. Give me the color from the courtroom, Jean.

CASAREZ: And that's the key right there. She was asked the question about her father. She had to explain that her father did not raise her and why he did not raise her. He was running for president and he was killed. And then she went onto say that he had been the attorney general.

Ashleigh, I want to tell you what's happening right now. The court has recessed for lunch. Defense has just rested their case. Closing arguments are set for 2:00 this afternoon. And this morning was the final defense witness. It was a clinical pharmacologist. The defense had called them because here's the prosecution's theory, in a nutshell.

The prosecution is saying even if you mix up the medications -- and they were side by side -- and you took the Ambien instead of the thyroid medication, you then knew and felt the effects coming on you. You shouldn't have left your house. You shouldn't have gotten behind the wheel. And if it came on you when you were driving, you should have pulled over. You had that duty.

So this clinical pharmacologist for the defense said the effects hit very rapidly. That the ability to make good judgment is severely impaired. And people affected by this medication don't even realize they're affected. But then on cross-examination, tough cross- examination, if someone has been on this medication for 10 years, aren't you going to know and feel the effects that it's coming on you? The answer was yes. So it will be in the jury's hands shortly after these closing arguments, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right. Well, keep us updated and let us know, you know, what transpires. I think it will be fascinating despite the fact that this is a misdemeanor, still interesting nonetheless. Jean Casarez for us.

I also want to bring in our legal analysts Joey Jackson and Dan Cevallos joining me now, alongside Lisa Bloom, who's got a brand new book. Let me make sure I've got it here. The author of "Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It." There it is there.

You know something, I'm so glad that you're here today, Lisa, particularly -- this is a strange nexus to make, but I will make it.


BANFIELD: The injustice that has come about as some people say in some of these very highly publicized trials -

BLOOM: Right.

BANFIELD: And the reporting of those trials sort of reminded me that that is not at all what happened in the courtroom. She did not look at a jury and say, pity me, I'm an orphan. But if you weren't inside that courtroom or watching responsible news, you would think she was begging a jury to let her off because she's a Kennedy who had an assassinated dad.

BLOOM: You know, I think these high-profile cases work both ways or certainly we, in the media, pay more attention to them when there's a celebrity involved. And jurors can either bend over backwards to favor a celebrity, because many of us really have stars in our eyes when it comes to celebrities, or they can go in the other direction, "The New York Post" direction, and say, you know what, she's just trying to get away with something because she's a wealthy person and a high profile person.

And I think what the defense is trying to do is really go right down the middle and say, look, sure, treat her like anybody else, decide the case based on the evidence, but Ethel Kennedy has been coming to court. The Kennedy family members have -

BANFIELD: My mom would come to court for me.

BLOOM: Have been coming. Yes, I know.

BANFIELD: My mom would be there and she's not a celebrity.

BLOOM: The fact - the fact that her father was running for president and he was assassinated is really not relevant to the case.

BANFIELD: But they asked her who she was.

BLOOM: So I wouldn't go as far as - but she was asked by her own attorney.

BANFIELD: Again, yes.

BLOOM: This is all planned in advance. So don't say don't blame her for that.

BANFIELD: Danny - Danny Cevallos has a very good explanation for that.


BANFIELD: Because up until then I thought, oh, yes, if it was her own attorney, they're certainly trying to suggest, you know who she is, don't you? But it's not exactly that, in your opinion. It was laying the groundwork for who she isn't. What do mean by that?

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Exactly. When you have your witness on the stand, you develop facts that are good for your case. And if you're asking her questions on direct, the jury wants to know a little bit about her. Here's what you need to know.

Let's get down to brass tacks, sympathy, pitying, asking a jury for pity has nothing to do with this case. This is a run of the mill DUI drug case. And the critical issue has nothing to do with pity. It has to do with whether or not her intoxication was voluntary or was it involuntary. The entire case comes down to that. If she voluntarily took that little blue pill or whatever pill it is -


CEVALLOS: That's it, then she is on the hook.

BANFIELD: A whole other thing. Yes.

CEVALLOS: If she can establish that it was involuntarily that she took it accidentally, then she has a fighting chance. But be warned -

BANFIELD: But there's two -

CEVALLOS: These are hard to win cases.


BLOOM: But there's two parts.

BANFIELD: Quickly.

BLOOM: There's the taking and then there's the knowledge once you have taken.


BLOOM: As minute goes by, another minute, another minute, knowing that you are now under the influence, even if there had been a mistake.

JACKSON: Innocent as charged. Listen, here's the reality.


JACKSON: Look, in terms of why her father came up or anything else, whenever you do a case, you do need to lay the foundation to explain to everyone who your, you know, defendant is and what it's all about.

Now, I want to talk about this momentarily. The reality is, is that everyone needs to be treated equally. I get it. I understand it. And celebrities should not have preferential treatment.

At the same time, celebrities should not be persecuted because they are celebrities. And the fact is, is that being an effective prosecutor, Ashleigh, is not always about being tough on crime. It's about being fair. It's about being just. And it's about doing what's appropriate under the appropriate circumstances.

Here you have a 54-year-old woman who has done nothing but things that are favorable for her country. Here you have a woman whose never been arrested before. We're not talking about crack. We're not talking about driving while you're drunk. We're talking about mistakenly taking an Ambien. And as a defense attorney -

BLOOM: Well, that's (INAUDIBLE) what she says.

JACKSON: That's what she says. But what we do as defense attorneys is we go into the district attorney's office and we prophet this to them and we say, this is what happened. And I would dare say that if it had not been for her celebrity, this would not even be at trial and it shouldn't be a trial and so prosecutors need to --

BLOOM: But how do you know she wasn't offered three months of a suspended sentence? How do you know that? And she refused to take it.

JACKSON: Well, the fact is, if it's a criminal -- but if it's a criminal trial, usually people fight, at least it's a fair point, but people fight generally because their back's against the wall. Because you're saying I'm a criminal where I have an alternative explanation. So I would have to believe a proper inference would be that she did not get a reasonable plea that would deem her a non-criminal. This should not be prosecuted.

BANFIELD: You know, Danny pointed - Danny pointed out something to me that I hadn't seen in the evidence so far and that was that her daily schedule had her headed to the gym.

JACKSON: Definitely (ph).

BANFIELD: And all I can say is, who takes an Ambien -

JACKSON: Before going to the gym.


BLOOM: Right.

BANFIELD: To go to the gym unless they mistakenly pick the Ambien bottle up instead of the thyroid medication.

JACKSON: Which look the same. Did you see them side-by-side?


BANFIELD: They were identical - they were identical CVS bottles.

BLOOM: OK, but -

BANFIELD: I've got to wrap it there, but quickly.

BLOOM: I think she wins that, but she doesn't win that she didn't know after she took it that she was tired (ph). And she doesn't get a pass -

JACKSON: She should win the case.

BLOOM: (INAUDIBLE) driving drunk, even if she is a Kennedy.

BANFIELD: Councilors.

CEVALLOS: Retroactive amnesia.

BANFIELD: Turns out the prosecutor's own expert had to concede on the stand yesterday that once the Ambien kicked in, she might not have actually realized that she was driving under the, you know, influence of Ambien. (INAUDIBLE).

JACKSON: Absolutely.

CEVALLOS: Retroactive - it's called retroactive amnesia.

BLOOM: After 10 years of taking it, she didn't know the effects on her?

JACKSON: Be reasonable, prosecutors.

BANFIELD: When I take an Ambien, I'm out. And I'm out now.

Hold on, guys, Lisa, Danny and Joey, standby. I've got lots more on the docket here.

We've got some new concerns in Ukraine as well at this hour because the Russians are gathering at the border, folks. Yes, sure, this is just a military exercise, but the Pentagon's pretty darn worried that it can go from military exercise to an incursion like that.


BANFIELD: Want to update you on breaking news we're following at CNN, and that is attorney general of the United States Eric Holder has been taken to the hospital because he was experiencing some shortness of breath and faintness, earlier on today. So he's at MedStar Washington Hospital right now. He is being evaluated there.

We are told that he is alert and is resting, which is a good thing because he keeps a very hectic schedule, up early and to bed late, and he's been doing that ever since the Obama administration took office, which if you think about it is a long schedule to be keeping long hours.

Anyway, we're wishing the best for the attorney general, and we'll keep you updated as we get more information on how the 63-year-old man is doing.

In the meantime, things are getting pretty tense along the border between Ukraine and Russia. Under the guise of military exercises, Russian troops are amassing along that border.

Pentagon is saying that those forces could move very quickly into Ukraine if ordered, hence, no more exercises, actual action. That would also leave the Pentagon and, of course, American officials very little time for any kind of diplomatic countermoves here in Washington.

The Russian units from the Black Sea fleet are already in Sevastopol, a key port city. The Russians say they're simply defending their naval facilities there.

But those who are pushing for greater democracy in Ukraine more than evident if you've been watching your TV screen over the past few days, you know, rival protesters have turned from chanting slogans at one another to all-out fist fights and attacks.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has this warning for Russia's military.


CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm closely watching Russia's military exercises along the Ukrainian border, which they announced, as you know, yesterday.

I expect Russia to be transparent about these activities, and I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculation during a very delicate time, a time of great tension.


BANFIELD: Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary.

Our Barbara Starr's monitoring the fast moving developments at the Pentagon. Barbara, look, there's a lot of intelligence we get in many different ways that tell us many different things about what the Russians are actually up to.

And it feels like, at least it seems like and correct me if I'm wrong, this is a lot of saber rattling possibly?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's what the U.S. certainly hopes and that is what they think is going on at the moment, Ashleigh, that the Russians are sending a message to the world. They could decide to move in. They have the capability to move in. But there's no indication so far according to officials that they really have the intention to do it.

The intelligence isn't there right now that they -- that Putin -- Vladimir Putin, would order them in, but he's certainly sending a message to the world.

And, look, Washington is sending a message back. How many years has it been since a U.S. defense secretary stood up at NATO at the headquarters of the alliance and warned the Russians, warned what followed from the Soviet Union? That's a real Cold War picture we're seeing whether anybody wants to call it that or not.

And so that goes to the level of political and diplomatic tension right now the idea the U.S. hopes is that it doesn't spill over into outright military tension, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Let me be clear, I'm asking you these questions despite the fact you are not officing in a hotbed of diplomacy at the Pentagon.

But what kind of diplomacy could the Americans actually employ in a circumstance like this?

STARR: Well, I think that's what we're beginning to see unfold very rapidly over the last couple of days, and I think it will continue to unfold as we move along, viewers seeing cabinet-level officials, Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, very bluntly say, Don't do it.

And behind the scenes what we know is there are talks between U.S. and Russian counterparts, Hagel again trying to reach his Russian counterpart, talks with new emerging Ukraine officials, a lot of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, a lot of intelligence gathering.

What the U.S. wants is to have as much information in hand as possible, so if things do look like they're going to start to move, they can get in touch with Moscow, get in touch with Kiev and urge them not to do anything that would further destabilize all of this.

BANFIELD: Oh, to be a fly on the wall in those conversations and phone calls.

Barbara Starr, good to see you. Thank you for that.

A serial bank robber is using some very odd legal defenses for his crimes. He says, I'm suffering from PTSD from military combat. This is a decorated soldier, folks. Does he actually have a case? And what about that defense? Think anyone will buy it? Our legal panel weighs in, next.


BANFIELD: A Florida man who was going to prison for a string of armed bank robberies says he is not 100 percent responsible for his crimes. And here's how he's actually couching that. He's blaming something that we have not heard before.

Gabriel Brown is his name. He confessed to the robberies, robbing banks at gunpoint, but he says it was only to feed his addiction to adrenaline, something fostered by his combat experience in the Army. Brown was a special forces sniper. He served in Afghanistan honorably. And he says civilian life was way different when he came home. He just didn't have that life and death excitement that he'd gotten so used to and that he became accustom to and started to need.

Lisa, Joey and Danny are here to weigh-in on this one.

Guys, when I first heard that I thought, please, until I read further along in the details of who this man really is. He is a decorated Green Beret, Bronze Star, no criminal record, exemplary service, who all of a sudden suffered like Louis Zamperini, it seemed, when he came home.

I mean, his life just collapsed. So it changed all of a sudden, but armed bank robbery?

LISA BLOOM, LEGAL ANALYST, AVVO.COM: I think we have to be sensitive to what our troops go through. And I've never been in combat, but I can have compassion for those who did. PTSD, for example, is well- established since before World War I.

So addiction to adrenaline, yeah, I think on first blush that sounds a little crazy, but I think we should be open to hearing what he has to say and what his psychological witnesses have to say. Maybe it does undercut the intent. Intent is necessary for any crime.

BANFIELD: We should say, guys, he confessed. He didn't ask anyone to go to trial. He didn't spend any money on any of our defense services or trial services. He said he did it. It's me, I did it and this is why.


JACKSON: What happens, Ashleigh, is this. First of all, PTSD, as Lisa mentioned, is very real. In my former life, I worked with veterans in our state capital and Albany and Veterans Affairs community and worked with a lot of veterans who suffer from this and it impacts their lives in really horrific ways.

That being said, Ashleigh, this was not used as a defense to get out of it. It was used as what we lawyers call mitigation.

What does that mean? It means in certain crimes when you go to sentencing there are aggravating factors, reasons you should spend more time in jail and there are mitigating fact factors, reasons that serve as a basis for you serving less time in jail.

And he's saying based upon the adrenaline and rush he did while in Afghanistan and serving the country and to be home and laying on your couch, he need that adrenaline rush. Does it excuse the crime? Absolutely not. But as Lisa mentions might we be sensitive to the fact he was in combat and service and should the judge consider it, I say yes.

BANFIELD: The judge -- you nailed it, Danny. This is not a panel of neophytes he's looking at. He's not looking at a bunch of jurors and asking them to do something that might be crazy to a courtroom.

He's asking a judge, who knows the law. He's a federal judge. He's got mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines of 32 years. And yet this judge gave him I think only five.

But at the same time why couldn't the judge look at him and say, If you had an adrenaline rush or needed an adrenaline rush, why didn't you become a firefighter? An oil rig worker? A paramedic? You'd have that rush fed every day.

CEVALLOS: That is the world of sentencing. You're absolutely right. This is federal court. So since a case from about five, six years ago called Booker, federal judges have substantially more authority to depart from what we call sentencing guidelines. Even if guidelines called for 30 years, the judge has the power to depart from that and give him a lesser sentence.

Joey brought up a really important point, and we often mix up the concept of liability and mitigation. When he goes before a court and says hey, I have PTSD. He's not saying excuse the crime completely. We need to make the distinction. Instead, he's saying -

BANFIELD: Give me a break.

CEVALLOS: -- look, I've already pleaded guilty.

BANFIELD: He's saying give me a break.

CEVALLOS: I've done bad.

Now, instead, he's saying on the punishment side, Understand the complete me. Here's why I did some things I did. I'm not saying I'm not guilty. I'm clearly guilty. But go a little easier on me. And that's the concept of mitigation. And virtually anything can be important to a judge or jury in mitigation. So, you should be allowed to put on just about anything.

Frankly, a defendant in this case who has pleaded guilty and testified against the buddy, that's going to do him better than PTSD.

BANFIELD: I want to only interrupt for a second. I could go on and on all day on this because I have such profound respect for our service members who return and suffer immensely.

But I do have to talk about our breaking news because apparently there's this tweet that's just come in from the Justice Department.

I think this is good news. We've been telling you that Eric Holder's been hospitalized this morning because of shortness of breath and faintness. And now from the justice department we have this tweet reading, "Attorney General Eric Holder is resting comfortably here and in good condition. He is alert and conversing with his doctors."

So this is -- I apologize, this is actually a tweet from the MedStar Hospital, but they also included the Justice Department in that tweet, as well.