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Ohio Mother Murder Case; Popcorn Worker Awarded $20 Million in Lawsuit

Aired March 16, 2004 - 07:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: In just a few minutes, we're going to talk to a man who says his lungs were destroyed in a popcorn factory. He says the flavored oils did the damage. The jury agreed with him. They gave him a huge award. We'll talk about the award and what's after that as well.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Huge, indeed, huh? Twenty million?



Also, the latest sensation in our solar system. Say hello to Sedna, just a speck of ice and rock way, way out there. We'll talk to a man whose team discovered it. Is it a planet? And why does that matter? We'll get to that in a moment.

O'BRIEN: A planetoid. A planet...


O'BRIEN: Planetoid. It's not quite big enough to be a planet. Yes. A wannabe planet. We'll talk about the implications of that.

Top stories, though, first.

New developments in the deadly Madrid train bombings. Basque Police now say they're holding an Algerian man with connections to those bombing. Spanish authorities believe they may have the names of as many as eight Moroccans who are connected to last week's attacks, which left some 200 people dead.

Authorities in Columbus, Ohio, have issued an arrest warrant for a man suspected in a series of highway shootings. Police say they are looking for 28-year-old Charles McCoy, Jr. in connection with the shooting incidents along Interstate 270. Investigators say he is armed and dangerous.

Two Unitarian ministers have been charged for marrying same-sex couples in New Paltz, New York. They face one count each for solemnizing marriages without licenses. Both ministers are going to join us to talk about that coming up a little bit later in our show.

A French author, who claims that Disney's "Finding Nemo" copied a fish from one of his books, has lost a court fight. The author had asked that all Nemo merchandise be pulled from stores in France while a lawsuit that he filed against Disney's Pixar played out. The judge refused.

And what a difference a week makes. An Indiana man who was laid off last week is now a Powerball winner. Twenty-four-year-old Tim Rivers (ph) and his wife claimed the $89 million prize yesterday. The couple took the cash option and will receive nearly 50 million bucks before taxes. They plan to move out of their mobile home and buy a new house.


O'BRIEN: And then they'll have 49 million, $400,000...

HEMMER: That's right.

O'BRIEN: ... left to decorate it.

HEMMER: Yes. And their lives are forever changed.


HEMMER: No question about it.

O'BRIEN: I wonder what...

HEMMER: What, he was laid off last week?

O'BRIEN: Yes, he lost his job. He went ahead and bought the Powerball ticket.

HEMMER: Yes, as Bob Dylan would say, I can't help it if I'm lucky. And he is lucky.

O'BRIEN: Yes, he is.


HEMMER: Now to the case of Melissa Ann Rowland, the Utah woman accused of killing one of her unborn twins by refusing a cesarean section.

CNN's Ted Rowlands is in Salt Lake City with more on this story this morning for us.

Ted -- good morning there.


This case is getting a lot of attention across the country. Rowland, from jail, says that she did not refuse the C-section, and she also says that she believes she's being made an example of by the state of Utah.

Meanwhile, it seems as though she is doing everything she can to get herself out of jail.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MELISSA ANN ROWLAND, ACCUSED OF MURDER: It's just that my bail is so high, your honor.

ROWLANDS (voice-over): After giving birth and after her arrest, 28-year-old Melissa Rowland not only tried convincing a judge to reduce her bail, but allegedly also tried scamming bail money from a local adoption agency. According to the agency's director, Rowland called from jail, claiming she was pregnant and would be willing to give up her fictitious child if she could get out of jail.

ANN LAMPHERE, DIRECTOR, ADOPT AN ANGEL: She's very good at manipulating, very good at telling you what you want to hear.

ROWLANDS: Rowland is facing homicide charges for refusing medical advice at three separate Salt Lake City hospitals. According to court documents, doctors say a C-section could have saved her child's life.

Some mental health advocates are concerned that Rowland's actions, including an alleged statement to a nurse that she'd rather lose a child than have a scar, indicates that she may be very unstable.

VICKY COTTRELL, NATIONAL ALLIANCE FOR THE MENTALLY ILL: This woman was not thinking rational, and it should have been picked up when she was exhibiting those behaviors.

ROWLANDS: Rowland's attorney says she has a history of mental illness, but the Salt Lake County district attorney's office disagrees.

KENT MORGAN, SPOKESMAN, SALT LAKE D.A.: And they've indicated that her difficulty is a failure to comply with authority. We have two prisons completely filled with people who are unable to comply with authority.

ROWLANDS: University of Utah law Professor Wayne McCormack says Rowland had a right to refuse the C-section.

WAYNE MCCORMACK, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF UTAH LAW SCHOOL: Her right to refuse surgery is her interest. And if she didn't like the color of the paint on the walls of the hospital, she can leave.


ROWLANDS: Rowland was carrying twins. The other child, a little girl, was born with, according to the district attorney here, alcohol and cocaine in her system. She apparently has been adopted out of state by another couple.

Rowland, meanwhile, has pled not guilty to the murder charge she faces. She is still in custody on $300,000 bail and will be black in court on March 22 -- Bill.

HEMMER: We'll watch it then. Ted, thanks. Ted Rowlands there in Salt Lake City -- Soledad. O'BRIEN: The oils used to flavor microwave popcorn caused a man to develop a serious lung disease. That's what a Missouri jury concluded yesterday when it awarded $20 million to Eric Peoples. His is the first of dozens of cases brought by factory workers who claim they were exposed to toxic fumes without warning or proper ventilation.

Earlier this morning, I spoke with Eric Peoples, and also his attorney, Kenneth McClain, in Joplin, Missouri. And I asked Peoples for, first, his reaction to that huge award.


ERIC PEOPLES, AWARDED $20 MILLION FOR LUNG DAMAGE IN POPCORN FACTORY: We were relieved that it was over after two weeks of trial. It was a whole new experience for us. Just to have it done.

And, also, we were very proud of what we accomplished. The whole -- the main goal five years ago when we contacted the first attorney was to have somebody notice that there was a problem and that something needed to be done. And I feel, with the jury's verdict yesterday, that we've done that. Our goal has been met.

O'BRIEN: You worked at the plant from October of 1997 to March of 1999. Give me a description of what exactly you do, and what kind of exposure you had to these oils. And was there any ventilation? Did you ever wear a mask? Things like that.

PEOPLES: The most exposure I had was when I did a job called the oil mixer. I would mix the butter flavorings with the salt and soybean oil and coloring to be put into the bags of microwave popcorn. I would lift 20 to 30 of these buckets up to just about head level to dump them into the mixing vat.

From there, the agitator was turned on. It would mix it. From NYOSH's (ph) report, once this stuff becomes heated, it become a vapor, and the vapor just spreads throughout the warehouse.

O'BRIEN: The manufacturer in the plant continued throughout the trial to deny any sort of liability. Tell me a little bit about this compound, and also the manufacturer's position during the trial.

KENNETH MCCLAIN, ATTORNEY FOR MAN WITH LUNGS DAMAGED BY FUMES: Diacedal (ph) is what gives butter flavor its buttery taste and smell. In fact, it's fond naturally in butter at trace levels. But in order to make an artificial butter flavor taste and smell like butter, they increase that diacedal (ph) level to about 10 percent, which is what we believe causes the injury, the unusually high level of diacedal (ph), which can vaporize at very low temperatures. By the evidence, it was 85 degrees. So, a hot day in Joplin will cause this material to vaporize.

So, it's this material that gets into the air and causes the lung damage. It caused Mr. Peoples' lung damage, but not just people in his classification of mixing the oil, but even people as far down the line who were working in quality control who merely popped microwave popcorn in the laboratory.

So, this is a very potent chemical that was sold without any warnings and without any instructions about how to use it safely.


O'BRIEN: That was attorney Kenneth McClain; also Eric Peoples.

The EPA is now studying the chemicals released from bags of microwave popcorn -- Bill.

HEMMER: About 20 minutes before the hour.

After five months in hiding in this country, an Army National Guardsman has turned himself in to military authorities. Twenty- eight-year-old Staff Sergeant Camilla Majia was in Iraq last year from April until October, when he went home on leave and never returned. He surrendered yesterday in Boston, saying he intends to publicly challenge the war in Iraq.


CAMILO MEJIA, AWOL SOLDER: What I have to say I have to say from the heart, and it's a very simple message. And it's simply that I am saying no to war. I have chosen peace. I went to Iraq, and I was an instrument of violence, and now I have decided to become an instrument of peace.


HEMMER: Sergeant Mejia will seek conscientious objector status in an attempt to avoid a court martial.

Tod Ensign, an attorney with the group Citizen Soldier, is here to talk about this case, back here in New York.

Nice to see you. Good morning.


HEMMER: What happened in Iraq?

ENSIGN: Well he -- like a lot of soldiers there, the commanders gave him a lot of pressure to win awards. He felt that they were put at undue risk, and also the second-class treatment, which there's been a lot of publicity of, the lack of the Caviler (ph) vests. He said that during some firefights, they wouldn't even have enough M-16 ammunition at the end of a firefight.

HEMMER: So, is he complaining about a lack of equipment that would lead him to this type of action?

ENSIGN: This led him to a sense that there was a cynical use of the men, and that they were being pushed into dangerous firefights to win a war.

HEMMER: Did he see death at all that would have influenced his opinion?

ENSIGN: Yes, he -- there were several certain instances in which people were killed, a number of civilians shot, and situations where it was impossible, really, for the soldier to tell who they were fighting.

HEMMER: The commander in that group says the firing took place to protect American personnel.

ENSIGN: Well, the commander has one point of view. The fact was that Camilo was a squad leader. So, he was a recognized soldier -- I mean, a really natural leader. And he fought with his men, did the whole six months there, came home, and he said that once he came home, it all kind of came together for him. He just could no longer think about going back there and resuming the same activities.

HEMMER: Also, the commander says he just lost his nerve. How would he respond to that if he were sitting here today?

ENSIGN: Well, his contemporaries, his enlisted fellows, all say that he was a good troop. And one of them has come forward and offered to testify at his court martial. So, I think the officers have one point of view. Remember, they're in the rear, and the guys on the ground with him up in the front are saying no, he was a good soldier.

HEMMER: So, he's been essentially hiding on the East Coast between New York and Boston for the past five months, I believe right? Using cash to conceal his movements?

ENSIGN: No, not using -- well, he has to buy a hot dog like everyone else. But we've been preparing his case. I mean, his sealed application is a 60-page document. These are not things you do overnight. So, we've been preparing his case and planning for him to return to military (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

HEMMER: I saw this number earlier today: 7,500 members of the U.S. military fail to report to their units every year, out of about 1.4 million overall who make up the U.S. military. Why is this case getting so much attention now?

ENSIGN: Well, because, I think, there always are people that don't fit into the military or don't go back to their units. There's always that number. But the fact is, Camilo is a very conscientiously-political and antiwar person. And I believe many of the others are as well.

Yes, there are AWOLs always, in all wars, in all armies. But this group of people are saying -- really, saying what a lot of people in this country are saying in this country. The war is not about weapons of mass destruction. It's not about finding al Qaeda, and it's really not about helping the Iraqi people.

HEMMER: If he is so antiwar, why did he join the military?

ENSIGN: Well, he explains it that at the time he was 19 years old -- he's not a citizen. And he said I want to be part of this country. I want to support this country. And he does have a green card. He's a permanent resident. And so, he joined to be part of this country, to join with the rest of it and carry on that tradition.

HEMMER: Why did he turn himself in?

ENSIGN: Well, he really has to turn himself in. Someone being AWOL over a long term is always at risk of being apprehended, and he needed to resolve his life. I mean, no one wants to live in this kind of hiatus.

HEMMER: Possible penalty is what now?

ENSIGN: Ten years. He could be convicted of -- if he was convicted of both missing a movement and desertion, he could be given a 10-year prison term with a dishonorable discharge, which ends all benefits.

HEMMER: Tod Ensign, thanks for talking about the case with us today.

ENSIGN: Glad to be here.

HEMMER: All right -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Still to come on AMERICAN MORNING, a major development for police in the Ohio highway shootings. The suspect now named. We'll bring you the latest on that in the next hour.

HEMMER: Also, Soledad, an intriguing new object spotted deep in the solar system. The find has astronomers buzzing. We'll tell you why in a moment when we continue here on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: NASA has a brand-new picture of the Red Planet in living color. This spectacular 360-degree panorama of the Bonneville (ph) crater, taken by the Spirit rover on Friday, was released yesterday. Scientists hope to use the picture to determine where they should send the rover next.

And move over Pluto. There's an even more distant object circling the sun. It's smaller than a planet, bigger than an asteroid. So, astronomers have termed it a planetoid, and they've given it the name Sedna. It is eight billion miles from Earth.

Cal-Tech professor Michael Brown led the team that made the exciting discovery. He joins us this morning from Los Angeles.

Nice to see you, sir. Thanks for being with us.


O'BRIEN: What exactly is a planetoid as opposed to just an out- and-out planet? BROWN: Well, that's a good question that astronomers really have not figured out the answer to. We don't have a good definition for planet, but this thing is a little bit smaller than something I'd be willing to call a planet, so we sort of made up the name planetoid to try to describe what it is.

O'BRIEN: You just sort of made up the name.

BROWN: We made it up.

O'BRIEN: It's nice to have a scientist finally just admit something like that. So, as it stands right now, there are still just nine planets, right?

BROWN: Actually, as it stands right now, I would say there only eight planets, because I would say Pluto really deserves to be called a planetoid, too.

O'BRIEN: Wow! You're really shaking us up this morning. Just how exciting and how important, seriously though, is this discovery for scientists, and really for everybody?

BROWN: This is the coldest, most distant place ever seen in the solar system. And as you said, it's eight billion miles away, and that's three times further away than Pluto. So, the solar system has suddenly expanded in size by a factor of two or a factor of three.

But what's more interesting about this object is it's not only eight billion miles away right now, it takes 10,000 years to go around the sun. And during that time, it gets even 10 times further away. It will be 20 degrees above absolute zero in another 5,000 years. So, it's not really a place you want to spend the afternoon.

O'BRIEN: We're seeing it there in this red ring in the animation there. What do you -- what do you get from that information? I mean, those figures, as you mentioned, are truly startling. But what can scientists take from that information and sort of extrapolate to our planet?

BROWN: As an astronomer, I'm actually very excited about this, and the reason is we never expected to find something in this region of space. Finding something in this region of space is telling us many different things about the very earliest formation of the Earth and the entire solar system. And it's, in a sense, a fossil record of exactly what happened back then that we're now trying to read.

O'BRIEN: How did you discover Sedna? I mean, obviously, Pluto was discovered most recently in the 1930s. So, what led you to Sedna?

BROWN: Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, who developed the technique that we're still using today, only with more sophisticated equipment.

We just simply take a picture of the sky, we come back an hour and a half later, take another picture of the sky, hour and a half later take another picture of the sky. We can compare the three, and we look for something that moves. All of the stars, all of the galaxies, they're all stationary -- anything in the solar system that moves just a little bit across the sky.

And we've been doing this now for two and a half years, slowly moving across the sky. And just last November, this region of the sky came into view, and we saw Sedna just barely inching across there.

O'BRIEN: Well, it must...

BROWN: And we knew it was going to be...


O'BRIEN: It must be just barely. I mean, you said it just moves, what, around the Earth once every 10,500 years.

BROWN: Right.

O'BRIEN: That motion must be really minimal.

BROWN: It was. As soon as we saw it, we knew it was the most distant thing that anyone had seen in the solar system, so we were quite excited.

O'BRIEN: Well, congratulations on your big find. You realize now that you've just sent shockwaves through the world by saying there are eight planets, not nine, and the models everywhere in schools across the globe are going to have to be changed.

BROWN: Sorry.

O'BRIEN: At least you feel sorry about it. Michael Brown, astronomer, thanks for being with us. We really appreciate it.

BROWN: It's my pleasure.

O'BRIEN: Bill.

HEMMER: I like that.

In a moment here, the forecast later today in New York is for snow. Last night, though, it was for "Purple Rain." Prince receives one of music's top honors, as only he can, next.


HEMMER: Welcome back. Question of the day to Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: It's a dandy. The Bush administration wants Senator John Kerry to name the leaders who Kerry claims want him to defeat President Bush.

Yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney said that when Senator Kerry was challenged at a campaign event to give the names, he said -- quote -- "That's none of your business." Mr. Cheney said Americans deserve to know who Senator Kerry is talking about. So that be the question: Should John Kerry identify these people who he says want President Bush defeated?

"If I were in Kerry's shoes," Jess in Park Ridge, New Jersey writes, "I'd get those aforementioned supporters to step forward and announce their support publicly, if possible. It would be the best way to get out of this little trip-up."

Pamela in Pinckney, Michigan: "Kerry should be more careful with such statements. He cannot identify any leaders who may want Bush out, because these leaders still have to work with Bush. I, however, do not have to work with Bush, so I can plainly say I want him out."

Gordon in New York says: "It's none of our business. We should be happy that Mr. Kerry is already begun to stuff his own mouth with his feet. This arrogant, angry, opportunistic, self-serving, weak-on- terrorism, would-be president will commit many more faux pas in the coming months. We have heard nothing from him about specific things that he would do to improve our situations."

Scott in London, Ontario: "The names of the leaders that want Bush replaced should be protected. Given the track record of the current administration, those governments and world leaders that are against Bush may find themselves overthrown."

And Larry writes this: "Hey, Jack, how about a truth expo? Kerry can tell us about the foreign leaders, Cheney about the energy committee meetings, Scalia about duck hunting, and the president about what I really did in the war."


HEMMER: And do you say, it's a good old good one for the next eight months, right?

O'BRIEN: Oh, yes.


HEMMER: Seven and half now and ticking.

There are going to be potholes throughout this campaign. You just have to avoid the big, deep ditches.


HEMMER: That's where you get in trouble and have to dig out.

CAFFERTY: I just -- I love when they get fussy with one another.


CAFFERTY: It gives us something to do in the morning.


HEMMER: That it does.


CAFFERTY: And people are just going nuts writing to us.


CAFFERTY: I mean, we're getting lots and lots of mail.

HEMMER: Keep it coming. Good stuff.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. All right, thanks, Jack.

O'BRIEN: Well, the artist formerly and now currently known as Prince is now also known as a Hall of Famer. Listen to this.

Oh, let's go crazy. Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last night. Also honored during the ceremony at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the late singer, George Harrison, singer and songwriter Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, the 50s du-wop (ph) group, the Dells, 60s jazz rocker Traffic, and 70s blues rock band ZZ Top. Jann Wenner, the co-founder of the "Rolling Stone" magazine, as well was honored.

They all got together for an all-star jam session. Do you think Jann Wenner was included in the jam session? That included Kid Rock and Keith Richards as well.

HEMMER: That's a heck of a stage there.

O'BRIEN: That's pretty cool.

HEMMER: Yes. What's Tom Petty doing up there and Kid Rock?

CAFFERTY: I have a question.


CAFFERTY: Isn't the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio?

HEMMER: That it is.

CAFFERTY: Why do they always have the induction ceremonies...

HEMMER: Two ceremonies.

CAFFERTY: ... someplace besides Cleveland, Ohio?

HEMMER: Two ceremonies. There's one in New York, because you come to New York City and you get all of the attention.


CAFFERTY: But there is no -- there is no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York.

HEMMER: No, there is not.

CAFFERTY: It's in Cleveland.

HEMMER: But there are a lot of reporters here. Then they go back to Cleveland (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to do it.

CAFFERTY: But there are airplanes. You know, reporters fly around on airplanes.

HEMMER: Yes, there are, as a matter of fact.


CAFFERTY: They can get to virtually any location.

HEMMER: That's a good point.

CAFFERTY: We never have the ceremonies...

O'BRIEN: Are you two quite through?

CAFFERTY: ... in Cleveland.

O'BRIEN: Can we move on?

HEMMER: He's just taking a few shots at Ohio, and I'm going to get him on Nevada later.

In a moment here, after months of mystery, authorities have a suspect in Columbus, Ohio. All the latest on that case in a moment here. They're looking for this man. Will they get him? A good question. We'll get to it right after this.


Million in Lawsuit>

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