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Dorian Johnson's Previous Arrest Irrelevant; Michael Brown Grand Jury Begins; Governor Won't Remove McCulloch from Brown Case; Hagel Says ISIS Greater Threat than al Qaeda as U.S. Launches More Airstrikes; Reported Executions in Gaza; United Way, Salvation Army Help in Ferguson.

Aired August 22, 2014 - 13:30   ET



DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Don Lemon, reporting live from Ferguson, Missouri.

There are new questions about the credibility of the key witness in the Michael Brown shooting. Brown's friend, Dorian Johnson, was with him when he was killed. And it turns out Johnson was arrested in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 2011, for theft and making a false police report. A report to police, I should say. But his lawyers say that is irrelevant.

Our Chris Cuomo talked with them about Johnson's previous arrest.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CO-HOST, NEW DAY: Did you know anything about your client's criminal background before today?

JAMES WILLIAMS, ATTORNEY FOR DORIAN JOHNSON: You know, the client's criminal background is really a red herring here. This is a case where you have two innocent unarmed citizens walking down the street who eventually had to flee for their lives, unarmed, with their hands in the air. Criminal background or not, everyone is entitled to constitutional protection. This police officer can't be judge, jury and executioner. Criminal record, history, "A" student, honor roll, whatever it is, the point here is that you can't gun down innocent people.

CUOMO: Understood. Credibility, however, key, especially in assessing testimony. When they hear about the criminal background and the types of crimes involved, do you think it hurts your client's credibility?

FREEMAN BOSLEY JR, ATTORNEY FOR DORIAN JOHNSON: I think it's something they take into consideration. But remember, he met with the FBI, the Justice Department, the prosecutor's representative, a detective. And at that time, over a week ago, he laid out his whole life to them. They asked him about his criminal background. They asked him about the matter that he had a warrant out against him. He talked to them about it at length and in detail. CUOMO: If you are counsel, if this goes to trial, and your client

comes up and takes the stand and says what his testimony is about -- let's start with the robbery. He had no idea what was going on, he doesn't know why Mike Brown did what he did. And opposing counsel says, you had no idea, haven't you been charged with a larceny before? Haven't you been charged with making false statements to the police? Isn't that very damaging?

WILLIAMS: Not at all. His credibility has nothing to do with what he's been charged with in the past. It has to do with what he saw here, seeing his friend get murdered in cold blood by a police officer.


LEMON: Let's get some insight now on the major legal developments here in this case in Ferguson, Missouri. You have the revelations about the past arrest of Johnson and the impact that might have. You have the grand jury that started hearing evidence in the case this week. There are persistent calls and even a petition, thousands of signatures, calling for the St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch to be removed from this case.

Let's talk about it now with trial attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon. He joins us from Washington.

Let's start with Dorian Johnson's arrest record. It's been out there for at least a week now. Now it's really bubbling up. Does this really damage his credibility, or is it even relevant, or is it irrelevant, as his attorneys said?

J. WYNDAL GORDON, TRIAL ATTORNEY: It may be relevant, but it's not material. One of the things that struck me that none of the attorneys said is that it's merely an arrest record. An arrest record is not going to be used in court against you for credibility purposes. You can't use someone's arrest records. You can use convictions. Until that arrest amounts to a conviction because you're presumed innocent when you're charged with a crime, unless he just admissions to the facts of it, it's not going to be relevant, it's not going to be used, it's a prior bad act and it's inadmissible. The fact we're spending all this time in the court of public opinion, well, that's great. But when you get into the courtroom, it's going to be a completely different story. If any of the attorneys are familiar with the rules of evidence, it's a nonissue. It's a nonfactor. And, you know --


LEMON: You don't think it will come up at all? They can't even -- you think it can't even come up? Even in the grand jury? He's saying to federal investigators -- here's what the attorney told me last week. He said that Dorian admitted all of this. And even admitted, you know, being in the convenience store during the supposed robbery. Saying he wasn't the one stealing the Cigarillos, that it was Mike. His client has been transparent about all of this. You're saying especially when it comes to the 2011 police report, so to speak, or the filing of the report -- (CROSSTALK)

GORDON: Police file reports --


LEMON: -- won't even come up at all?

GORDON: Police file reports because they're based upon probable cause. As you know, probable cause is a very low standard to meet. It's about right here. Beyond reasonable doubt, it's a very high standard to meet. It's up here. Even though you may be able to meet that standard of probable cause, which was the lower standard, you still have to meet the standard beyond reasonable doubt.


GORDON: So just because a police officer wrote a report, that's nearly probable cause. That doesn't tell you as a matter of fact he committed these crimes. In fact, all it tells you is that in our American system of justice, he can be tried for it. So that's all we know based upon --


LEMON: Got you. All right. Let's move forward. Talk about Wednesday. A grand jury began hearing evidence in the case. St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Robert McCulloch, says it could be mid-October before the panel decides whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson. So walk us through that grand jury process and what's going on right now with this case.

GORDON: Well, I imagine that they're merely just assembling the grand jury, try to determine which ones will be best suited to listen to the facts and evidence in this case. I imagine that evidence will be trickling in. The grand jury will have an opportunity to ask questions of witnesses.

And, you know, one of the things about grand juries -- in an ordinary criminal case, it doesn't require all this pomp and circumstance that's going behind these types of grand juries. In an ordinary criminal case, the grand jury is merely -- even if this case -- whether it's used for investigative purposes or to indict. I don't know which one they're empanelling them for now. But either way, the standard again is very low. It's probable cause. I'm sure they're going to have questions. They're going to be the first ones to review the evidence. By the end of it, all they have to do is determine probable cause. They don't have to determine whether or not there's enough evidence to convict. That's the actual jury's job, not the grand jury.

LEMON: If you can just really quickly tell me about this. A lot of people in the community are asking about the prosecutor being replaced. He says he's not walking away from the case. So what do you make of that? The governor says he believes he's fully capable of doing it. I won't let you listen to the sound byte but what do you make of that? The governor says he believes he's fully capable of doing it.

GORDON: I think it's completely irresponsible given the case of this nature. We dealt with some of those issues in our great city of Baltimore where prosecutors should --


LEMON: That's irresponsible you think to leave him on this case?

GORDON: Yes, I think it's irresponsible. Look at the outcry. Look at the uproar that's occurred. I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm not saying it's illegal. I'm not necessarily saying it's improper. If he wants to make sure there's trust in his office, he would assign a special prosecutor to handle this case. That's what I think.

LEMON: All right. All right, J. Wyndal Gordon, thank you. I appreciate the conversation. Please come back and join us here on CNN any time.

GORDON: Thank you. I'd be happy to.

LEMON: Coming up, the battle against ISIS. Can the current strategy work? Can the current strategy work? Or does there need to be American troops on the front lines to stop the terror group? That's next.




CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: ISIL is a sophisticated and well- funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we've seen.


LEMON: Secretary Hagel went on to say that ISIS poses a greater threat than al Qaeda ever did.

And today, the U.S. launched new airstrikes in support or Iraqi and Kurdish troops around the Mosul Dam.


ADM. JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: As you know, we are engaged in supporting Iraqi security forces. And not just only but, you know, with kinetic airstrikes, which we believe have had an effect. I'm not going to -- I'm not going to get ahead of planning that hasn't been done or decisions that haven't been made. We don't telegraph our punches. But I think you can rest assured that the leadership here in the Pentagon understands the threat posed by this group.


LEMON: So, joining me now is Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

I have something I want to read. Hang on with that. I found your article fascinating. You want to take this out of the political realm. You think there's too much ideology going on, right versus left. You said, "President Obama's policies in the Middle East have failed in numerous ways. But he is right that the political debate is the greatest threat to our global standing. One cannot argue that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010 contributed to the rise in ISIL without acknowledging that the U.S. invasion in 2003 did the same thing. The former without the latter is a political argument, not a policy position."

That was a profound statement. Explain that.

BRIAN FISHMAN, COUNTERTERRORISM RESEARCH FELLOW, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Yes, my concern here is ISIL -- we need to go after this organization. I agree very much with Secretary Hagel's assessment that this is an extraordinarily dangerous institution. But I think we need to make sure we match our sort of commitment with the goals that we want to achieve. What I worry about is that, in Washington, there is this tendency to say, well, we need to defeat this organization, we've got to destroy it, in detail. But nobody wants to talk about what the commitment is going to be, if we're actually going to achieve those aims. I think if we are going to achieve the destruction of this organization, that's going to take years. It's going to take lots of troops. And it's going to take a real national commitment on behalf of the United States of America to go out and do it.

And so that's why I think that the president right now is not making that commitment over the long run, that our goals are actually more circumspect. And in that sense, I think we can achieve some more limited goals of preventing this organization from spreading, pushing it out of some of the key areas like the Mosul Dam, and doing a humanitarian mission. What I worry about, though, is the politics in Washington pushing us into mission creep without a real national consensus of what it's going to take.

LEMON: And you lay it out very well in the article. You also say, listen this is not going to be -- and going back to what you said, stop sort of blaming. This administration's responsible, this administration's responsible. What's key here is that ISIL or ISIS needs to be removed. Their power needs to be taken away from them. And in your opinion, though, what is required to defeat ISIS? I think you're saying there is not going to be a quick fix, right?

FISHMAN: No. Yeah, there's not going to be a quick fix to this problem. As with any -- you know, as with any counterterrorism mission, counterterrorism is done best by competent law enforcement officials doing domestic intelligence, right? We're way, a long way from being able to get to a framework where there's actually a possibility when it comes to ISIS. What that will require is to militarily constrain that organization and build up governance on both sides of the Iraqi and Syrian borders, right? But, right now, the Iraqi government doesn't control where ISIS operates. ISIS is essentially a state in those areas. And Syria is racked -- continues to be racked by the civil war. Are we going to -- nobody I think wants to stomach the challenge of -- and what it would require for there actually to be functional governments in Syria again. I mean, does that mean Bashar al Assad gets to control Syria again? I think nobody in Washington wants to advocate that position, because he is, himself, an awful dictator responsible for killing thousands and thousands of his own people.

So we're between a rock and a hard place, and we need to recognize that. Our policy needs to be driven by those very, very difficult choices. And we cannot allow this policy debate, which is tremendously important, as Secretary Hagel said, to get into the usual Washington left-right politics. And I worry that will happen because our national security debate has fallen into that over the last 10 years.

LEMON: And, Brian, it's a fascinating article.

It's on if you want to read it. Brian Fishman wrote it.

Thank you, Brian. Appreciate you.

Coming up next, we're going to head to another hot spot in the Middle East. I'm talking about Gaza where Hamas militants reportedly carried out a mass execution. A live report from the region is next.


LEMON: It has been a deadly day in Gaza and Israel. A 4-year-old boy has died after a mortar shell exploded in a Kibbutz parking lot. Five Palestinians today were killed in Israeli airstrikes. And a Hamas-run TV network is reporting 18 people, suspected of being informants for Israel, have been executed by Hamas.

Our Ian Lee joins us from Gaza City.

Ian, what are you learning about these reported executions?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Don, yes, like you said, at least 18 people have been executed. And actually, right now we're waiting to hear about more executions that are expected to take place in the city of Rafah.

And when you look at these pictures of the men about to be executed, you have the Hamas militants, who are clad in black, their identities concealed, but you also have those who are accused of collaborating, also having their identities concealed. And that's likely to protect the families of these men. Also, these could be high-ranking or mid- level Hamas members, and that Hamas doesn't want people to know how far Israeli intelligence was able to penetrate the organization.

But what you do see is that these executions are very much public. It's to send a strong message to anyone who would collaborate with Israel to say this is seen as treachery, and during a time of war, anyone who is accused and convicted of treason will be executed. We don't know any sort of legal procedure that took place against these men. Hamas has been tight-lipped about that.

But right now, we are waiting to hear about other executions taking place in Rafah. And this coincides with the killing of three top Hamas commanders that -- just the other day. We're unsure if these are linked, but right now, there is a festive atmosphere in Rafah as they wait.

LEMON: And, Ian, the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmud Abbas, supports the Egyptian peace initiative and is expected to visit Cairo soon. What are we learning about that visit? And are people in Gaza hopeful that a lasting truce is within reach?

LEE: Well, what we're hearing right now about Mahmoud Abbas' visit to Cairo is it's very fluid. We're not sure exactly when he will arrive. But he was in Qatar talking to the Hamas political leader about that peace process. But it comes down to changing the situation on the ground in Gaza. And unless that happens, a peace process really probably won't come to fruition -- Don?

LEMON: All right. Ian, thank you very much. Appreciate that.

Coming up, many families here in Ferguson were already struggling before the shooting of Michael Brown. Weeks of unrest have only made their situations worse. We're going to show what's being done to help the community get beyond this crisis.


LEMON: For many people in Ferguson, the events of the past couple weeks have really taken a very heavy financial toll.

Our George Howell visited a Salvation Army center trying to help the community get back on its feet.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not just because of the protests. We were already suffering before that happened. But it's just gotten so much worse, because even if -- like public transportation. It's hard to get on the bus to work and things like that for people.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. Even in the daytime, because sometimes in the daytime the buses don't want to go up and down the street, because the other day my brother was on the bus and he said the bus got shot at. I don't know who did it. But it's just dangerous so the buses don't even want to go through the area anymore.

HOWELL: So you're here. I know the kids aren't loving this. It's pretty hot out here right now.


HOWELL: Do you think you can get some help here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hopefully. Hopefully so.

HOWELL: Thank you for taking the time.


HOWELL: And what you see here, you see all around. If you take a look, right now we're at a center that has been set up to help people with food needs, with utilities, people who have rent needs. Because a lot of people just can't get to work or work has been looted, so work doesn't exist anymore. And you just go through here. It's a lot of people in this community right now who are waiting in line for any help they can get.

REGINA GREER, UNITED WAY OF GREATER ST. LOUIS: It started at 5:00 this morning. And by 8:00, we already had about 200 people that were here to seek services. We have tons of counselors. That's a major critical need people need right now. So we've got several of our agency partners, better family life, Boys and Girls Club. A number of people here just to be on hand to provide counseling services to adults and children. Because we're finding that the children are needing a great deal of counseling too.

HOWELL: What's it been like for her?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For her, she has been a little clingy. She's kind of on edge. I hope it gets better. I really, really hope it gets better. We can't afford for it not to get any better. If it gets any worse, we're all probably going to have to relocate up out of here.

We do want justice. Don't get us wrong. Let's get the agitators out of here. We want justice but in a right way, in a peaceful way. We want to respect the family of Michael Brown. They're going through enough as it is.


LEMON: That was George Howell, reporting.

I'm Don Lemon. Thanks for watching.

For our viewers around the world, stay tuned for NEWS CENTER.

And for our viewers here in the United States, NEWSROOM with Broke Baldwin starts right now.