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Legal Briefs

Aired December 8, 2002 - 08:21   ET


CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: We have a full docket today for our "Legal Briefs," including the PTech investigation, the Central Park jogger case and protests over the play "Jesus Has Two Mommies." Let's get right to it. Trial attorney, talk show host Michael Smerconish is joining us in Philadelphia, and in Miami this morning, we're joined by Lida Rodriguez-Taseff. She is the president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thank you very much for being with us this morning.


CALLAWAY: Good morning to you. Let's get right to the PTech investigation. Just to give everyone an update on that story, that's the Massachusetts firm under investigation now because it is connected to a number of government agencies, as has its customer base there. A Saudi businessman Yassin al-Qadi, who has been under investigation as with connections to al Qaeda, supposedly now connected to this PTech company. What do you think, Michael? This is once again we're seeing investigations into the money trail to al Qaeda leading to very big organizations.

SMERCONISH: Well, it's nice to see the war against al Qaeda back in the news, because somehow in the last several weeks al Qaeda has been knocked right off all the front pages and everything has been all about Iraq. And I keep wondering, have we finished the job with those responsible for 9/11?

One concern about this PTech investigation. Apparently the FBI in October of '01 was told by a former employee that there was this fellow who was on the block list who was an investor and had played a role from Saudi Arabia in PTech, and the FBI, it would seem, did not do anything at that time. I sure hope it's not another case of law enforcement not following through.

CALLAWAY: Just to give people an idea of what we're talking about here, with this company having several government agencies as its customer base, the fear is that this Saudi businessman would have had influence on getting certain representatives of his organization into the company to find information from these government agencies. A big fear, sure. PTech cooperating with this investigation, but Lida, what is it going to do to the company?

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: Obviously the company, no matter what happens, whether they're cleared or not, is pretty much dead. I would certainly think that after this the government's not going to do any more business with them. And I couldn't agree more with Michael this morning about the fact that they've known this for a long time. They got reports in '01, they got reports in June of this year and it took them this long to investigate.

It just comes to show you that when we should be fighting the war on terrorism, who knows what we're doing. But it's time to get back to the war on terrorism and it's time to begin investigating these leads and not letting them go by.

SMERCONISH: Catherine, I never get a chance to say to somebody from the ACLU, well, wait a minute, they haven't been convicted of anything yet. That's usually what you'd be saying to me, so I have to say it to you this morning.

CALLAWAY: And you were waiting for that opportunity, too.

Let's get to more legal issues that you can address here and talk about this Manhattan case. The D.A. now asking a judge to throw out the conviction of five men in the 1989 rape and beating case of a jogger in Central Park. Now, this individual, this Mateas Reyes (ph), who says he alone convicted (sic) this crime, this after these individuals, one, spent 11 years behind bars, the other spending seven years behind bars. Michael, what are your thoughts on this case?

SMERCONISH: Well, Catherine, please do not use the word "innocent" to describe the five guys, because the fact of the matter is, there's only one new bit of evidence or data. A guy who raped the jogger, who previously was never charged and unfortunately because of the statute of limitations can't be charged now, we now know his identity. It doesn't mean that they didn't play a role. Two different juries evaluated their confessions and decided they believed them. And just because a serial rapist and a convicted murderer now comes forward and says, well, I alone did it, I for one am not about to cut a free pass to the other five guys.

CALLAWAY: I don't think I said innocent, did I? I said the judge is throwing them out.

SMERCONISH: You didn't. No, no.

CALLAWAY: All right, just want to be clear here. What do you think, Lida, about this DNA evidence? Are we going to hear more from the DA? He seems to have switched his story rather quickly.

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: Well, you know, it's amazing that he did, and we are talking innocent. I hate to tell you, Michael, Michael, Michael, you're wrong on this one. The reality on this one is that the report from the DA's office not only pointed out that the DNA issue, but it also pointed out the inconsistencies in the confession, that the young boys couldn't be at the site of the rape at the time of the rape, that they didn't even know what time it really happened.

So this is not just a case of maybe not as guilty as first thought. This is a case of probably very innocent. Maybe they were doing some other bad things in the park, but they certainly didn't commit this crime. And it's amazing that this is the same DA's office that rushed and pushed to get these kids convicted 11 years ago.

CALLAWAY: Michael, you have to say that once again this does not look good for these videotaped confessions of these very young suspects.

SMERCONISH: Oh, no, no, no. No.

CALLAWAY: ... again, these individuals were 14 years old.

SMERCONISH: To the contrary. What's being said are two different things. Two contradictory things. On the one hand, you hear, well, the cops must have beat those confessions out of them. And then you hear, oh the confessions? They have inconsistencies. Hey, if the cops beat the confessions out of them, don't you think they'd beat a consistent confession out of them? It doesn't make sense. You've got to take your pick, because those theories don't add up.

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: What it boils down to is when police officers want to investigate these cases, they should start the tape rolling at the beginning of the investigation and not when they think they have a confession ready to be manufactured.

The reality is, we have to do what Nebraska and Alaska do. They tape confessions from beginning to end. And if police have nothing to fear, then they're not going to be afraid of allowing their confessions to be taped. And don't say anything about, oh, these (UNINTELLIGIBLE) are secret, because everybody who watches "NYPD Blue" knows what these confessions look like, what these questions look like.

CALLAWAY: Wait a minute, that's a television show.

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: And we should tape them. Absolutely.

CALLAWAY: But, you know, it's drama. It's not real life.

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: Well, it's amazing how sometimes drama and real life blend into one. And I think it's important to note that only two states tape confessions from beginning to end, and we need to start doing it everywhere so that we don't have these issues arising 11 years later.

CALLAWAY: All right, speaking of drama, let's talk about this play called "Jesus Has Two Mommies," upsetting some religious groups out there saying they don't want to see this bag. Michael, what do you think?

SMERCONISH: Well, the idea that the baby Jesus was raised by two lesbians is abhorrent to Christians. Not that there's anything wrong with that. If this is the way the Berkingstock (ph) crowd wants to celebrate Christmas, I guess they have a right to do it, but I for one would never go to watch it.

CALLAWAY: Yeah, but they have the right to do it, right, Lida? RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: Oh, absolutely. And you know, what's funny about this is that those who want to belittle the protesters are saying, well, they've never seen it. Nothing in the Constitution says that you actually have to be protesting intelligently in order to be allowed to protest. As long as it's peaceful, heck, let them do it. Let the play go on, and let the debate continue, because I think that's what democracy is all about.

CALLAWAY: All right, court moment of the week had to be the Winona Ryder case. Not going to spend any time in jail for her felony conviction of shoplifting. Let's listen to this for a minute.


MARK GERAGOS, WINONA RYDER'S DEFENSE ATTORNEY: That is just so outrageous, judge. That really is.

ANN RUNDLE, PROSECUTOR: I have been listening to this for a year, and I...

GERAGOS: She hasn't listened to anything for a year, she's only been on this case for four months.


CALLAWAY: All right, speaking of drama, there's some, Lida, and that was the real thing. Looks like she's going to be spending some time in probation, doing a little community service. What are your thoughts on her conviction and sentence?

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: Well, clearly, she is probably getting a better deal than anybody else would have gotten, because this is probably a repeat offender that never got caught before. Well, I don't think she's going to be shopping any time soon at Saks. And the community service is a good idea.

So hopefully other people who get convicted of the same thing and receive the same fairness that she obviously got.

CALLAWAY: Michael, I know you're itching to get on this one.

SMERCONISH: You know, I love the open mouth. This is Winona Ryder, starring in the role of innocent shopaholic. And the only thing that's missing is Johnnie Cochran in the background saying, if her five fingers slipped, you must acquit. I mean, come on, give me a break already.

CALLAWAY: All right. Michael Smerconish and Lida Rodriguez- Taseff, thank you very much for being with us this morning. We had a lot to talk about; we all got it in.

SMERCONISH: Thank you.

CALLAWAY: I appreciate your short but very important comments this morning.


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