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Burden of Proof

Rae Carruth Trial Preview: Prosecutors Allege Murder Conspiracy

Aired October 20, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: A pregnant woman is killed, a professional football player is arrested, and prosecutors allege a murder conspiracy.

For nearly a year, former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth has been behind bars, charged with the fatal shooting of his pregnant girlfriend. Now, the case that sent shockwaves through a North Carolina community as well as the National Football League moves into a new phase as prosecutors and Carruth's lawyers prepare for the start of his trial on Monday.

Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

On Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina, jury selection begins in the murder trial of ex-professional football player Rae Carruth. Last November 16th, Carruth's pregnant girlfriend Cherica Adams was shot multiple times as she drove through a Charlotte neighborhood. She died nearly a month later after giving birth to a boy who survived.

Now, prosecutors allege that Carruth offered to pay two men to carry out the shooting. But this week, Carruth's lawyers filed a motion claiming that the confessed trigger man, Van Brett Watkins, shot Cherica Adams when she made an obscene gesture at him. The defense motion also claims the shooting occurred just hours after Carruth refused to finance a drug deal involving Watkins and another man charged in the Adams killing.

Joining us today to sort this all out are former federal prosecutor Steve Berk, criminal defense attorney Bernard Grimm, and former federal prosecutor David Douglass. In the back: Amy Lestichen (ph), Emily Leftholz (ph), and Cara Lane (ph).

I want to go right to you, Bernie. Let's talk about the facts in this case because they are somewhat confusing. We know that Cherica Adams was shot and killed and Mr. Watkins has already admitted being the person that pulled the trigger. He initially claimed, of course, that he was paid to do so by Rae Carruth, and now there seems to be, at least some questions about whether or not that's actually the story.

Where are we now?

BERNARD GRIMM, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: When it first hit the papers the story we get is Cherica Adams is pregnant. Carruth wants her to have an abortion. She refuses. He becomes enraged and then hires people to do what's essentially known in the business as a contract killing. Now, after motions have been filed, it appears that Carruth's defense is Watkins wanted Carruth to front money for a major narcotics deal. Carruth refused and then Watkins and his confederates followed Carruth, incidentally saw Adams, Carruth's wife, also driving. She gave them an obscene gesture when she saw them tailing her, and as a result of that, Watkins, then, unloaded, literally unloaded, on her. The proof of that comes out of Watkins's own mouth and statements that he made to the police after his arrest. So, it's very, very compelling. Carruth has got a defense that he can put in front of a jury now.

COSSACK: Steve, the interesting thing about this, one of the interesting things about this, is that, as Bernie just described for us, but, what happened, is that all of this kind of happened in a short period of time. Apparently, the allegations are that Carruth initially agreed to finance this -- whatever is large-scale marijuana deal -- and then, when it was ready to occur, backed out and said I don't want to do it and took off in his car with Cherica Adams then following in his car -- in her car -- and Watkins driving, trying to find Carruth, and instead finding Adams and this allegedly obscene gesture took place and Watkins says: I lost it and shot Cherica Adams.

Now, you are the prosecutor in this case. You have based your case on, certainly, not this. How does this affect your ability to prosecute?

STEVE BERK, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, we used to have a famous expression, Roger, when we'd go to juries in cases like this. And we'd say, look, we don't have a witness store. And Bernie, you probably remember this line. We can't go to the witness store and bring you the best witnesses. We can't choose our witnesses and find the most upstanding citizens out there. The people that are committing crimes, the people that are doing these kinds of acts, have bad histories. They have done bad things and we're putting the evidence forward to you.

And the evidence here is compelling that Mr. Carruth had a motive to do this murder and that the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests -- with statements and other things -- that he was behind this conspiracy. But it is a very strong tactic for the defense to always do in cases like this. And David, you probably remember this as well, is to dirty up your witnesses. And the prosecutor basically has to say, look, I can't clean these witness up. Mr. Watkins is not a nice man. He's obviously a killer. But we didn't go to the witness store and pick these guys out. We didn't have that opportunity.

COSSACK: OK prosecutors, but let me just remind you exactly what these facts are, it's Watkins, who you have based your case on, who initially said -- you made a deal with. Watkins, who was faced with the death penalty. And you've made a deal with him, and said we are going to give you 50 years, but you have to testify against Carruth. And he said: I'll do it. Already, you know, defense lawyers are going to say: Well, that's a little suspicious. Obviously, this man will say anything to save his life, and now this same person that you based your case on, suddenly has made statements or allegedly has made statements to an officer, while in jail, that says, you know, Carruth had nothing to do with it, I lost it. I was angry at Carruth and I shot this woman. The very same witness that you were basing your case on; now what?

DAVID DOUGLASS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Roger, you are giving me flashback to the days when defense attorneys would sit across the table and tell me: You don't have a case.

Picking up on the witness store metaphor, the problem here, I think the defense will allege, is it is not clear what the government was shopping for. They went buying a murder for higher witness, but ended up with a murder for hire witness and as well an enraged, drug- addled, psychopath witness.

So I think that the problem they're going to have is they have to have one story to tell. So, in addition to the problems of just a dirty witness who has every incentive in the world to say anything to keep himself out of jail, or to shorten his sentence, now they have two sort of -- this person telling two very different stories. It could be problematic, depending on what the corroborating evidence is.

COSSACK: But Bernie, there is some other evidence that the prosecution has and let's not forget about that. There are some declarations that the decedent, Cherica Adams, said before she died that apparently the judge is going to get to the jury. Let's talk about those.

GRIMM: Right, I'm flanked by prosecutors here so I am going to have to do my best, I'm alone. She makes statements right afterwards, when she is still conscious, vague statements, saying: I think, curiously, I think it was Carruth who did it. Then she makes another reflective-type statement saying something: Why would he do something like that? or words to that effect. Those will probably come in, and I think the judge has already provisionally ruled, they will come in as dying declarations.

COSSACK: Let me just stop for a second and just, so everybody understands, dying declaration is an exception to the hearsay rule. Because normally that would be a hearsay statement.

GRIMM: That is a hearsay...

COSSACK: So why does that come in as a dying declaration?

GRIMM: For the viewers who watch this show, I'm sure they've been educated on it before, but essentially, hearsay is an out of court statement by somebody who is unavailable for me to cross- examine. I can't cross-examine that young lady who made that statement and find out: Why did you say I think Mr. Carruth did it? Hearsay is inadmissible.

There is a ton of exceptions that probably swallow up the rule, one of them is called a dying declaration, which essentially, if someone is under impending fear of death, and they actually think they are going to die, there is usually no motive to lie at that juncture, when you are about to leave the face of the Earth. Whatever you're saying, you are telling the truth.

COSSACK: And we have to make this quick. But how reliable is something like that, who says -- what does it prove when someone says: I think he did it, but I don't know why he would. What does that add?

DOUGLASS: Well, what it ads, as she would argue, I would argue, as the prosecutor, have very little reason to get it wrong, as to the father of her child. So she is stunned, she is surprised, and said: I think it was him. That is tremendously compelling evidence that in fact it was him.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. We have to take a break now. But up next, televising the Carruth murder trial. Can cameras affect that verdict? BURDEN OF PROOF will be right back.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

Michael Skakel attends a hearing today on whether he should be tried as an adult or a juvenile in the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley.

Skakel and Moxley were 15 at the time he is accused of beating her to death with a golf club.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers. You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log onto CNN.com/burden. We now provide a live video feed Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show, and even join our chat room.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against former professional football player Rae Carruth, whose trial for the killing of his pregnant girlfriend begins next week.

Well, let's talk a little bit, Steve, about the camera in the courtroom. This is a trial that will be televised. Some people will argue that, in fact, the camera in the courtroom makes it difficult to get justice, makes it difficult for the jury to come back with an impartial verdict. Your belief?

BERK: You know, Roger, I trust the system, I trust the jurors, I trust their common sense. I don't think the camera makes that much of a difference in 99.9 percent of the cases. And obviously in the O.J. Simpson case it made a tremendous amount of difference, but I think the courtroom should be open. I think the jury can -- it's a very -- it's a murder case. It's a murder of a woman, and so I think they'll be able to listen and pay attention and not let the cameras be problematic and get in the way of that. COSSACK: You know what bothers me? And Bernie, as a defense lawyer, I'm going to aim this at you. It's obviously something that we always worry about, those of us who are on television, the notion of what gets talked about and what doesn't get talked about. And so when you select a trial like the Rae Carruth trial to put on television, are you, by implication, saying something? I mean, one thing you're saying is, look, we think this has entertainment value because we hope people will watch it. But second of all, are you saying something about the guilt or innocence of the defendant?

GRIMM: I think implicit in putting it on television, you're suggesting to the viewers, we think this guy did it. This has viewer appeal because we think this guy killed a pregnant woman. Otherwise, I wouldn't think it would inject that entertainment value in it.

I'm against it. My feeling is a trial is like a church proceeding: It's solemn, it's quiet, it's serious. If you want to come, it's open to the public, you can watch. My only footnote to that is you have veterans, you have disabled and handicapped people that can't make it and they should have the benefit of watching it perhaps on TV. But other than that, I'm against TVs in the courtroom. I think it injects too much of a carnival atmosphere into a solemn process.

COSSACK: All right, now, David, it's true that not every murder case gets televised. In fact, very, very few murder cases get televised. So the mere selection of one, does it say anything? It says, look, we have Rae Carruth, somebody who's a professional football player. This is one, folks, we think that you're going to be more interested in and we want to put it on television. Is there an implication there?

DOUGLASS: I don't think so. And the reason I don't think so is because it can say other things as well. It could be -- suppose it was a civil rights trial or some -- a trial where there were important community values at stake or you wanted to ensure that a defendant got a fair trial. People have many, many reasons for wanting to see trials. And, in fact, it's a constitutional safeguard to have public trials.

So I don't think you can read anything into the fact that a given case is televised. I am troubled by the notion of selectively -- I support cameras in the courtroom. And on the church analogy, you look on Sunday, churches are on TV all the time. So I support cameras in the courtroom, but I am troubled by this notion of selecting which cases become televised. It should be a flat-out rule, all or nothing. Whether people cover them or not, that's a different matter.

COSSACK: All or nothing in what way?

DOUGLASS: All trials should be televised or access should be made if there's any...

COSSACK: The rules should be that all trials could be televised or all trials should not be televised.

DOUGLASS: That's exactly right.

COSSACK: But you couldn't force Court TV or anyone to go in and put their cameras in every courtroom. They would have the right to select which courtrooms they go into.

DOUGLASS: They would, but there's the proliferation of television technology as such that I think we might be amazed at how many trials would get covered by local news, community access stations. Certainly more high-profile indications would get network coverage. I think you might find that people have a high degree of interest in what goes on in courtrooms in America.

COSSACK: Is there an argument to be made against televising a murder trial where the defendant is someone, is a celebrity, a former National Football League player? Is that sort of like loading up, if you will?

BERK: Well, Roger, the legal argument there is obviously that the adverse publicity will poison the jury pool. And sometimes you'll see motions like that in a criminal trial. Obviously those motions are made prior to the trial because the jury pool hasn't been selected yet and you can always sequester the jury.

But sure. I mean, if the jury is not sequestered and there's going to be lots of publicity and it's going to be on the evening news or on your show or other shows, the jury can get, you know, gain certain inferences by what the coverage is like, and that could be prejudicial.

COSSACK: All right, Bernie, now you have this -- you're in this case and you're faced with the issue of representing a celebrity and representing a celebrity whose case is going to be tried. You now have to speak to that jury in selecting the jury and you have to decide who's going to be fair and who isn't going to be fair. What role do both of those issues play: a celebrity and a camera?

GRIMM: That's a mouthful that we could go on for hours and hours and hours. I think the type of juror that you're looking for in this case, at least for me, would be an African-American woman. You would be looking for somebody between 25 and 45, employed. I think that that group of people, those basic demographics, would not like Mr. Watkins, would not like his story, would not like the fact that he shot somebody. He's the one that shot Miss Adams, not Carruth, and there's some separation there. Carruth may have organized it, but he's the killer. And to put an -- for the government to put a killer on the stand, I don't jurors would like that. I think it stops right there and people would say, I have a reasonable doubt.

COSSACK: All right, now, what goes into your thinking in terms of the fact that, you know, this case is going to have a camera in the courtroom? Now you have jurors who are going to be asked to make a decision, and they also know that perhaps they won't be seen on television, but at least what they do will be known to the community. What do you do about that?

GRIMM: That makes it harder for me as a defense lawyer because the jurors are sitting in the box, and let's say during deliberations their feeling is, listen, we want to set this guy free. However, I don't want to be known in my community forever and a day as a guy who acquitted a guy who may have been behind killing his own wife. And incidentally, sooner or later, the cameras are going to get me coming out of the courthouse or going into the courthouse. Sooner or later they're going to find out. The cameras suggest that someone should make a finding of guilt.

COSSACK: All right, let me have David respond to that quickly.

DOUGLASS: I think jurors render unpopular verdicts every day. And they go home to their friends and neighbors and say, I was on the jury. And if it's a case that's gotten any notoriety, they say, I was on that jury and I acquitted, I convicted. The simple fact of the matter is having cameras in the courtroom to record it and broadcast it more broadly I don't think affects that. We depend on jurors to do the right thing, prosecutors, defense attorneys. We all trust jurors to do the right thing, and I think they'll do it even if there are cameras there.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Next, we're going to have an update on the Martha Moxley murder case. There's a hearing going on right now. Stay tuned.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: While the New York Yankees are facing the New York Mets in a Subway Series, they are also facing a civil rights lawsuit. Why are the Yankees being sued?

A: For allegedly denying a black woman entry into the Stadium Club restaurant for dressing too skimpily, while allowing white women similarly dressed.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: We are back. And we are going to be talking to Mickey Sherman, the lawyer for Michael Skakel in the Martha Moxley murder case. There's been a hearing this morning to determine whether or not Mr. Skakel should be treated as a juvenile or as an adult.

Mickey, what went on in court this morning?

MICKEY SHERMAN, MICHAEL SKAKEL'S ATTORNEY: There were about four witnesses put on. The probation officer who filed the report was on the stand regarding his report. We then put on three other witnesses, in addition to that, then made our arguments, and the state made their arguments, and the judge will now make a decision some time within a reasonable time.

COSSACK: What is the argument, as to what should happen to your client. After the probation officer testified, in fact, that there is no place for a person of his age, in a juvenile facility, how did the state respond?

SHERMAN: Well, the state basically tried to cement that in saying: We had nothing for a 40-year-old juvenile. Our argument was that, you know, you placed juveniles out of state before, and both that probation officer, together with two of our other witnesses, testified that the juvenile court has placed delinquents out of state who had special needs. And our argument, very simply, is that Michael Skakel, if you ever found him delinquent, is someone with special needs. And his special need is the fact that he's 40 years old, and that's not our fault. They waited 25 years.

COSSACK: Mickey, you have stated, particularly -- at least on our show in the past, that you wanted to try this case, and you did not want it resolved with something other than a complete verdict of not guilty. Does this change your approach?

SHERMAN: No, that's still true. I'm just saying that if it's tried, the proper venue is the court. It happened when he was 15, and if they believe he did it, then he should be tried in the court.

We will still take it to trial (inaudible) by the judge. In the end, it is not going to matter that much because I'm still confident as ever that he will be found not guilty. But, you know, what is fair is fair, don't punish this young man because you waited 25 years to investigate this case.

COSSACK: Mickey, in terms of when the decision will be made by the court, it is my understanding that no decision was made yet. When do you expect a decision to come down regarding Skakel's future?

SHERMAN: Don't know, the judge says she will take the papers in a reasonable time, so I don't know when.

COSSACK: What is the next move now, Mickey, what do you intend to do?

SHERMAN: Wait for the judge's decision patiently.

COSSACK: And what is your client's state of mind at this time?

SHERMAN: He's doing well. He is a lot more relaxed than he has been previously, and you know he's accepting of the procedure, and he will wait for the judge to make the call, and we will go from there.

COSSACK: All right, thanks, Mickey Sherman, for joining us. I just want to talk to our panel for one second.

Steve, in terms of Mickey Sherman's position, who is in this unusual position of having a client that they don't even know exactly where they, one, should try him, and two, what is going to happen to him. Have you ever seen anything like this, in terms of practicing law?

BERK: No, this is -- the Moxley case is just fascinating on several different levels. And it is interesting that they want to sort of have it both ways, in some respects. They want to get a clear verdict, meaning, you know, you are not guilty; on the other hand, they want to get their guy off, and if they can get him off doing anything they can, they are willing to do it. So it is really interesting.

COSSACK: All right, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for joining us.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE": Should the Internet be filtered from pornography in schools and libraries? E-mail, fax and phone in your comments and tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern.

And Sunday on "CNN & TIME: DNA evidence; convicted criminals have used it to clear their names, but the family of Diane Gregory wants to know whether it could be used to solve her 20-year-old killing. My co-host Greta Van Susteren has that story Sunday at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. So join her.

But join us again Monday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We will see you then.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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