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California Wildfires; Cause of Firenados; California Stunned by Explosive Wildfires; Sterling May Refuse to Pay Fine, Sue NB; GM Agrees to $35M Fine for Faulty Switches; Sudanese Woman Faces Death for Her Religion

Aired May 16, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It's Friday, May 16th. And welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

We begin in southern California dealing with the fire season there. A fire season from hell. And hell has come early this year. More than 17,000 acres in San Diego County devoured as several fires rage on there. The pictures tell the story.

Fire season typically starts in late summer. But more than 15,000 people in Escondido have been told to get out, run for their lives. The fires are dangerously close to their homes. Just watch this one move. It's what looks like a tornado, actually called a firenado, a funnel of flames that is just terrifying for anyone who sees it nearby. And it's just a sample of the Bernardo Fire in San Diego, where 1,500 acres have been burning and are scorched.

These fires are still very much active. Our Ted Rowlands is live in Escondido, California.

So I can see what the mess is behind you. But that's the least of their worries, what's behind you, because this is still active. Give me the latest.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Ashleigh, this is an example of the worst case scenario, obviously. This is a home that was lost in this area, the San Marcos Escondido fire. And this house was completely leveled. But the houses around it are fine. And that's because of the ability that the firefighters had last night. And it's just dramatic.

You look at that tornado, the firenado video that you just showed. Well, that was happening behind me, up on this hillside, where you could still see some smoke. But yesterday afternoon, when that was happening, this area was completely black. That was on the other side of this mountain and this side of this mountain. You can see up now in the sky, you see a spotter plane. That plane is basically spotting spots for the air drops that are coming within the next half hour, 45 minutes. That plane will tell the air tankers and the helicopters exactly where to drop their retardant and their water.

The good news is, the weather is ten times better than it was yesterday and the day before. There is no wind at all right now. If that holds, firefighters should be able to get a complete grasp of this fire. And this is the worst of the eight that are burning, seven that are still burning. This is the one that has them more concerned. If the weather conditions stay as they are now, firefighters believe that they'll have the upper hand and be able to make massive progress today. So that is the good news. This is the bad news.

BANFIELD: And, Ted, just quickly, our colleague, Dan Simon, told us as we look at the smoke coming up off that rubble behind you, that it's hard just to stand there. Is that -- we can't see it on television, but - but it's just hard to breathe, that there's so much smoke in the air.

ROWLANDS: Yes. It depends on where the wind is going. Actually right now the wind is moving away from us, thankfully. But when the wind shifts just a little bit, yes, it's disgusting toxic smoke because this is plastic and other things that's burning in these homes and it has filled the area with smoke that is potentially hazardous. And that's one of the big concern. People here are being warned, don't spent a lot of extra time outside if you're in one of this inland areas. When you're near the coast, you're fine. But in these areas, yes, the air's pretty nasty.

BANFIELD: Very distressing. Well, I mean, thank God the winds are dying, but it's not clearing out that smoke. Ted Rowlands, doing the job for us, live in Escondido. Thank you, Ted.

The crews need any edge that they can get on fighting these fires. And to get a sense of how dangerous the situation is, let's go back to what Ted was just talking about, those firenados. The amount of video that's coming in showing these firenados and how robust they are. I mean they are up for a long time. They're not just flashes. It's really catching a lot of people's attention in this particular series of fires. A lot questions about why that is. Our CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray has been doing the digging. She's at work in the CNN Center in Atlanta.

First of all, I have seen them before, but just not this many, Jennifer, all at one time, so many different videos. What is it with this particular fire that's causing that many firenados?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, it's really not that uncommon. And I really think the simple answer is, it's just all other Twitter. It's all over Facebook. The means of getting these images out is so much easier these days. So we are seeing a lot more of these pictures.

But, basically, you've got intense, intense heat. Heat's going to rise. It's going to pull it up to the sky. You've got these very strong winds. That air is going to spiral inward. You have all of this brush, all of that dry ground that's going to be sucked up in there. And then it just builds very, very tall.

And that's what we've been seeing. They do get that momentum and they spin and they look like tornadoes. And so we have been seeing a lot of those. You are right.

We're also seeing these fires start to become a little bit more contained. We are going to see improving weather conditions over the next couple of days. That is really going to help firefighters. These are images from space and you can see the smoke just being pulled off shore. Incredible images from NASA there.

But look at these temperatures. We're going to see temperatures fall. We've had temperatures in the triple digits by tomorrow into Sunday. We'll have temperatures back in the mid-70s. Still above normal, but that's going to help those firefighters. Also, an on-shore flow will increase that relative humidity. Ashleigh, it will start to bring more moisture in and that's what you want when you are trying to fight these fires.

BANFIELD: Boy, do you ever. And I think I have the definitive guest on that coming up next. Jennifer Gray, thank you.

So I want to bring in Fire Captain Richard Cordova with Cal Fire. He's been a firefighter in So Cal for 17 years now and he joins me live now in San Marcos, California.

So, captain, speak to those issues. I mean this is not the season where you are ready to sort of bone up and be completely all out on these kinds of fires. It's usually August. But the weather's getting better. All of this must be good news.

CAPTAIN RICHARD CORDOVA, CAL FIRE: Yes, it's good news. The high is moving out and the low is moving in, so it's giving us higher humidities and lower temperatures, so the firefighters can help -- help them on the ground. And we do not expect these kind of weather conditions in this time of year. We're usually expecting these in the September/August area. And we usually gradual our way into fire season. But we pretty much left fire season in November and pretty much started over where we left off.

BANFIELD: So what about other states and other jurisdictions? Have they had to sort of jump in and help you out while we were all sort of caught unaware about this?

CORDOVA: Yes. And we - Cal Fire looked at the weather patterns before all the fire started, and so we moved a lot of our equipment from northern California to southern California because we were anticipating the higher temperatures, the Santa Ana winds that we normally don't get this time of the year. And so we moved equipment down from northern California to pre-stage, just in case of this type of event.

BANFIELD: So the other thing I just want to ask you about, because you got 17 years in this and I typically see this from a television screen, is those firenados. While it looks really remarkable, is that something that you've seen a lot, or is this sort of unique to this particular condition?

CORDOVA: It's something that we see more later in the season, not earlier in the season. What happens is that the fire moves so quickly and intensely that it will create its own weather and eventually with that amount of heat, it will create its own thunderstorm. So being in a thunderstorm, you know, that winds are very erratic. They could be going one way on one end of the fire and a different direction on the other side of the fire. So it's very intense.

BANFIELD: I'm sure this is normal for you, but seeing these images that are on the screen beside you, they've been called Armageddon and they sure do look like it. You're so brave at what - and we are thankful that you and your colleagues do and we wish you the best as you battle what you have ahead. Thank you, captain.

CORDOVA: Thank you very much.

BANFIELD: Captain Richard Cordova joining us live this morning.

The saga that is basketball franchise owner Donald Sterling. Well, it wouldn't be another day if we didn't have another development. Guess what? He says no dice. He's not going down without a fight. He's refusing now to pay that $2 million fine that was levied on him. And that's not the only thing he's refusing to do. He's got himself a big- time lawyer too. We'll explain.


BANFIELD: Remember that $2.5 million fine that the NBA hit Donald Sterling with when it banned him from pro basketball for life, and then told him that he's going to have to sell his Los Angeles Clippers? Remember that? Well, Sterling remembers, and now he's telling the NBA, no, I'm not paying up. He's also reportedly threatening to sue if the league keeps trying to punish him for those racist remarks that he admitted to making to CNN and said that they were a terrible mistake. Those are his words.

Enter the lawyers. Defense attorney and CNN legal analyst Danny Cevallos and legal analyst and defense attorney Joey Jackson.

Can you just do that? Can you just say, no, I'm not going to pay. Is it that easy, Joey?

JOEY JACKSON, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: You know he wasn't going down without a fight, especially after he made the remark to the contrary. What did he say, Ashleigh? You remember this, Danny? What does he say? Well, the NBA had to do this, right, and so therefore I'm inclined to abide by whatever they want. So since he said that, I knew he would do just the opposite. And in hiring an antitrust lawyer, certainly it shows that he's gearing up in an effort to keep and retain control. Don't think it's going to happen.

BANFIELD: So you just mentioned -


BANFIELD: Those very words, because the first thing I thought was, isn't that what you call evidence that you would bring into a civil court of law if they have to end up in one? I want to play those words so that we can bounce off the exact wording because they are Sterling's words. Have a look.


DONALD STERLING, OWNER, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: I think it's a little bit harsh, you know, but --

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, CNN'S "AC 360": Which part of it?

STERLING: What is the league supposed to do? Every -- they're in a storm. And a stupid owner has created all these problems. They have to show that they're not going to stand for that. The league won't stand for that. They won't stand for racism, I'm telling you. And I did it.


BANFIELD: Oh, that's when you sort of wish you never were being taped when you say those things. But he agreed to being taped. There was no lawyer present. And as Anderson reported, he wasn't being advised legally that Anderson could witness anyway. Is that problematic?

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Hugely. And more so because the NBA is not subject to the rules of evidence, like a court would be. But assuming this case gets to court, under the rules of evidence, that would be -- a lot of people shout hearsay. Wait, that's hearsay. Not at all. When you make an admission, it's considered non-hearsay. It's considered to be reliable enough that it's admissible in court. But, remember, the NBA doesn't have to follow the rules of evidence. And if it stays within the NBA, then it really doesn't matter. They can admit just about whatever they like.

BANFIELD: But it's not like Vegas. Like what happens in the NBA doesn't always stay in the NBA.


BANFIELD: Even though we've made all sorts of issue of that constitution, that (INAUDIBLE) private club, there's still that issue of anti-trust law.

JACKSON: Yes, there is.

BANFIELD: And you know what he did? He went and got himself a big kahuna of an anti-trust lawyer.

JACKSON: Well, as I say, if it wasn't Danny Cevallos, how could it be a big kahuna? Are you kidding me. Listen, he can do whatever he wants, Ashleigh. He can get anti-trust lawyers, he can get a battery of lawyers. It comes down to the NBA constitution and was it violated.

Now, understand what he's doing, because really, as this exclusive club, they have an arbitration provision. What does it mean? It means we resolve everything in-house. And so what he's attempting to do is say, look, let me implicate an exception. This anti-trust. You're restraining trade. You're restraining competition. You're selling my team and a value and for a value far less. I think it's a lot of hyperbole and I think at the end of the day the lawyers will make millions and he'll be gone.

BANFIELD: So I would agree with you - you know what, I would agree with you but for this, and this is the only reason I wouldn't agree with you, Joey Jackson, Professor Joey Jackson - JACKSON: Yes.

BANFIELD: Because this particular attorney has gone to bat against the NBA before on behalf of one Donald Sterling.

JACKSON: He was successful in the past. Tell her - tell her why, Danny, he's not going to be successful now.

CEVALLOS: Well, first of all, it's the scariest thing sometimes to us lawyers is success in the past, because it's exactly what clients expect this time around.


JACKSON: It emboldens them.

CEVALLOS: Oh, yes. That sometimes is the most terrifying thing to have that last success.

BANFIELD: I did it before; I'll do it again.

CEVALLOS: It builds expectations a little too high. And in this case, remember, to get this into court, they have to override the fact that Donald Sterling signed an agreement that placed all of the rights in the hands of Commissioner Silver. And absent some arbitrary and capricious behavior, this will not be reviewed by a court.

BANFIELD: You know what? That whole thing when he said to Anderson, "I'm sorry, I hope they'll forgive me," I don't know if this helps.


BANFIELD: I don't know if this helps him.

All right, Danny and Joey, stick around. I've got other things that I need to ask you about.

And, by the way, the Clippers won't be making their first-ever appearance in the Western Conference Finals because they were trailing three games to two in their best-of-seven semifinal series with Oklahoma City. Oh, man, Clippers lost last night, 104-to-98. And look at that. I love the bro hug. I love the bro hug after the game.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Classy, classy.

BANFIELD: Very, isn't it? It's why I watch a game, for the bro hug at the end, to be honest with you.

All right, gents, there's a brand-new development, and guess what? It has the LEGAL VIEW to it.

There's a new development for automaker G.M. They've been under scrutiny after that company delayed reporting the deadly defect with its cars, and they did so for years.

Now it's come to roost. They've agreed to pay millions of dollars in fines for that issue, but that may not be the last of the problems for G.M. Why, you ask? We have the answers, next.


BANFIELD: General Motors long-running problem with ignition switches just got a lot more expensive. G.M. has agreed to pay a $35 million fine for failing to alert federal safety regulators, let alone order a recall, for 10 years.

And in that time, ignitions that suddenly cut out have been blamed for several deadly accidents, lives lost, people.

My CNN colleague Poppy Harlow joins me live with the details. And in Boston, we're also joined by lawyer and CNN commentator Mel Robbins.

All right, first to the news of this, Poppy, I don't think I was expecting $35 million, but give me the reality behind this.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Were you expecting more? This is the maximum fine they can face for a civil penalty. This is not the criminal investigation. That is still going on from the DOJ. This is a civil fine, 13 deaths tied to this ignition switch problem.

It can turn off when you go over a bump or your knee hits it, and then the air bags, power steering, all of that, very dangerous. The general issue here, General Motors knew about this 10 years ago. They didn't tell people until this year, a few months ago, when they recalled.

BANFIELD: What did the feds say when they levied this?

HARLOW: I want you to listen, some very harsh word coming from NHTSA which oversees the safety of drivers. Listen.


ANTHONY FOXX, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: What we cannot tolerate, what we will never accept, is a person or a company that knows danger exists and says nothing.

Literally, silence can kill.


HARLOW: This is the highest fine we've ever seen from NHTSA having to do with a single violation tied to a recall, but keep in mind here, NHTSA, that agency, was also up on Capitol Hill, Ashleigh, in April, answering tough questions from Congress with people saying, (inaudible), you should have ordered a recall earlier. You should have known. They say we didn't have the info we needed. But they've also been in the spotlight facing criticism on this.

BANFIELD: And maybe that's why the strident tone, they took.

HARLOW: Right.

BANFIELD: If you're G.M., you can't just sit back and not say anything. You have to come out and respond in some way. HARLOW: They're responding in a press release, not on camera. We haven't heard from the CEO, Mary Barra, and we're not going to today or in the near-term on this.

Here's what she said in the press release. "We've learned a great deal from this recall. We'll now focus on the goal of becoming an industry leader in safety. We'll emerge a stronger company." Keep in mind, this is a CEO newly in the job, just a few months. This didn't happen when she was in charge.

BANFIELD: True. True, but, Mel, please get me off the ledge here, $35 million for a company this big. I get what Poppy says, but that makes no sense.

MEL ROBBINS, CNN COMMENTATOR: You know, Ashleigh, I think I'm going to jump off the ledge with you, because the fact of the matter is, it wasn't a single violation. And I wish they would have found a way in the language to be able to stick it to them.

$35 million is nothing. Let's put this in perspective, guys. They made $500 million in sales in Q-1 alone this year. They knew about it for a decade. It's 13 deaths, 42 crashes. And, you know, fixing the problem is not enough. They need to send a much louder --

BANFIELD: Well, OK, Mel, how about the DOJ?

ROBBINS: -- stronger message. And I think it's totally egregious.

BANFIELD: DOJ still has that investigation. Ten seconds are left. What else can be done to -- in a punitive way for G.M.?

ROBBINS: I think that they should have some sort of liability for these people's deaths.

As soon as we can establish when they knew that this failed ignition switch was causing accidents and causing fatalities, there's got to be some kind of criminal liability where they can pierce the corporate veil and go after people that made business decisions that impacted people's lives.

BANFIELD: Story's not over. We'll see what happens with the additional investigations, the criminal.

Poppy Harlow, Mel Robbins, thank you both. Appreciate it.

There is a death penalty case. You know how I feel about the death penalty, right? We're not talking America here. This is international, and it is absolutely outrageous.

Take a look at that lovely wedding picture, a woman pictured with her husband. She's now eight months pregnant, and she has a toddler, and she's in prison. And she's facing the death penalty, because she married a man who wasn't her faith and refused to renounce her Christianity. This is not a joke. This woman could be killed because she's a Christian.


BANFIELD: Overseas today, a woman is in prison, and she's been sentenced to death. Her crime, according to the judge, is she refused to give up her Christianity. This happened in Sudan. This woman on the right is married to a Christian man. She considers herself a Christian. She was raised one, after all.

But the court says, your dad, who took off on your family when you were 6, well, he's a Muslim, and Sudan's law says Sharia law means you can't marry outside your faith. So they told her to renounce her Christianity. And in the court, she defiantly said no. Her husband told us that he feels helpless to save her.

Michael Holmes of CNN International is here with me, live, and also with me is Adotei Akwei from Amnesty International.

Where do I even begin? Michael, perhaps you can tell our audience who hears a set of facts like that and thinks that can't be real. That truly can't be real. How real is this? What are the chances this death penalty is going to be carried out?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's every chance. Not initially though, Ashleigh, and that's because this poor woman, Meriam Ibrahim, is actually pregnant. She's eight months pregnant, as you pointed out. She's in prison, though, while she goes through the pregnancy.

The court has said that she can have the baby and then breast feed for two years after that. And then the death penalty will be carried out.

Now you make a couple of points here. She was born to a Muslim father. Now under interpretation of Sharia law in Sudan that means she is Muslim.