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Interview with Nelda Blair, Lida Rodriguez-Taseff

Aired February 5, 2005 - 08:00   ET


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR, CNN SATURDAY MORNING: A Florida couple accused of starving and torturing five of their adopted children have been captured in Utah. From the CNN Center this is CNN SATURDAY MORNING. It's February 5. Good morning everyone, I'm Tony Harris.

NGUYEN: I'm Betty Nguyen. Thank you so much for being with us today. Let's tell you about some top stories.

Police in Utah have arrested a Florida couple, as Tony mentioned, wanted on charges they abused and starved five of their seven children. Deputies arrested them last night without incident. The children say their adoptive parents pulled out their toenails with pliers and punished them with electric shocks.

NATO search crews canvassing the mountains east of Kabul, Afghanistan, have located the wreckage of a jetliner that disappeared two days ago during a snowstorm. A search crew is being assembled for possible survivors among the 104 people aboard. Three Americans are believed to have been on flight.

Police in Canada say the unusual step of posting photos on the Internet may have helped them identify the locations where an unknown child was sexually attacked. They say a hotel in the southern U.S. has been identified as one of the crime scenes. Toronto police found the photos on a public Web site and posted them after digitally removing the young girl's image. They say they have been absolutely overwhelmed with tips that could lead to the victim and her abuser.

Also this morning, the Vatican says Pope John Paul II is recovering well enough that he will be able to bless the faithful tomorrow from his hospital bed. An aide will read his address and an American Cardinal James Stafford (ph), will perform the Ash Wednesday prayer service. The frail 84-year-old pontiff had been rushed to the hospital Tuesday with breathing problems.

HARRIS: Police find a Florida couple suspected of child abuse thousands of miles away. We'll tell you what John and Linda Dollar did to help end the search.

President Bush hits the road to drive home his top agenda item. He says changes for Social Security are radical and crucial. But how is his message being received? And in our "Legal Briefs" potential jurors in the Michael Jackson case face some probing questions.

NGUYEN: In our top story this hour, hammers, pliers, stun guns, these are said to be the tools of torture used by a Florida couple charged with abusing five of their seven children. But a simple cell phone was the instrument turned against them. We get the details now from a reporter Bill Logan from CNN affiliate WFTS in Tampa.


CAPT. JIM CERNICH, CITRUS CO. SHERIFF'S OFFICE: They were stopped in the Lexus SUV.

BILL LOGAN, REPORTER, WSTF NEWS (voice over): The end of the line came for John and Linda Dollar thousands of miles away where they abandoned their motor home at this Polk County RV park. It came two time zones away from this house of horrors in Citrus County, where lawmen found the instrument of torture.

CERNICH: We had mentioned earlier that they had been shocked by a cattle prod. Hit on the feet with sticks and belts. Their feet put in a vice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very difficult to fathom someone would do that.

LOGA: Neighbors here and on the street where the Dollars lived in eastern Hillsboro County could only shake their heads in disbelief.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You never saw them, except going to church on Sunday.

LOGAN: The Dollars had slipped out of Florida so quickly investigators say they had to go high tech to catch them.

CERNICH: Our detectives were able to track cell phone usage by the Dollars to the Salt Lake City area and in turn enlisted the help of the local authorities there.


That was reporter Bill Logan of CNN affiliate WFTS in Tampa.

HARRIS: John and Linda Dollar first came to the authority's attention two weeks ago when their 16-year-old son was rushed to the hospital with a head wound. He also had red marks on his neck and was extremely malnourished, weighing a mere 59 pounds. That led to the other children being interviewed, their own chilling accounts, and the launch of the investigation.


GOV. JEB BUSH, (R) FLORIDA: The children were not in the custody of the state. The hot line call comes in, the DCF has done its job right. And that's the way it should be. This is tragic that parents, in this case adoptive parents, these were parents that received these kids under adoption, in the early 1990s would do what they did. (END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS: The Dollars reportedly did not abuse two of their adopted children, a 14-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter because they considered them their favorites. We will more closely examine the Florida case in our "Legal Briefs" just about 10 minutes from now.

NGUYEN: President Bush spent the week working to convince Americans that the changes he wants to make to Social Security are radical, but necessary. CNN's White House Correspondent Elaine Quijano joins us now from the White House with more on that and the president's budget plans.

Good morning, Elaine.


President Bush is back at the White House after wrapping up a two-day push yesterday, one that took him through five states. Part of a larger campaign really to try to win people over to his ideas on changing Social Security.

At stops on Friday, including one in Little Rock, Arkansas, Mr. Bush laid out his case telling the largely friendly crowds that unless lawmakers act soon to overhaul the system Social Security will run out of money by 2042.

Now the president says part of the solution lies in a voluntary plan to allow workers under 55 to take part of their with holdings and put it in private accounts. But to sell that idea, first he has to convince people that Social Security is a looming problem. And yesterday he pointed to changing demographics to make his arguments.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have more people living longer, receiving benefits longer, at a greater level of support. Plus, the number of payers into the system have declined from 16 per beneficiary to 3.3 per beneficiary. And in relatively short order it's going to be two people paying in for beneficiary. Now that's a problem. Because the system can't sustain itself.


QUIJANO: Now critics, though contend if left untouched Social Security will still be ale to pay about 73 percent of the benefits in the year 2042. Now, over the past couple of days President Bush has made his case in five states, places where the White House is trying to put pressure on Democratic senators. Democrats, though, are holding firm against the idea of partially privatizing Social Security. They are concerned about cutting benefits and even some Republicans, Betty, are expressing reservation. They are concerned about adding to the nation's debt load. NGUYEN: I wanted to ask about that, Elaine. Because see how much progress the president has made in selling this plan to members of his own party. Are you seeing any difference there? Are you seeing Republicans jumping onboard?

QUIJANO: At this point, still, a little difficult to tell. The president, in fact, said to submit his budget to Congress on Monday. So more details to come on exactly where the president's spending priorities lie, but certainly you have had Republicans both privately, as well as even publicly in more recent days, coming out and saying they perhaps think there might be a different way to do the Social Security reforms that President Bush says are so desperately needed.

At the same time, though, remains to be seen just what the president is willing to do. At his tour yesterday, and the day before, during that tour he said, he is open to all ideas, not just from Republicans but from Democrats and Independents. He says the only thing he's not willing to do is to raise payroll taxes to get any reforms put into place, Betty.

NGUYEN: CNN's Elaine Quijano at the White House this morning. Thank you, Elaine.

HARRIS: Other stories across America this morning. A big boost for Howard Dean's bid to become Democratic national chairman. Two rivals of the former Vermont governor, Simon Rosenberg and Donny Fowler (ph) have dropped out of the race and are supporting Dean. His lone opponent now is former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer.

"The Dallas Morning News" reports that nine students at Heritage High School, in suburban Colleyville (ph), have admitted using steroids. And the students have reportedly given officials information on an adult who supplied the banned drugs. An investigation began after a student athlete's mom found steroids in her son's bedroom closet.

The world's most active volcano, Kilauea, is in its 22nd year of continuous eruption. But Hawaiians are now getting an unusually spectacular show. Major lava flows have combined sending a river of liquid fire into the sea, building a lava shelf that covers several acres and extends 50 yards from shore.

NGUYEN: That's quite a sight.

Ahead in our "Legal Briefs", what's next for the couple accused of abusing five of their seven adopted children?

And it is "Super Bowl" weekend. We want to hear from you. Our e- mail question of the day is: Are you looking forward to the game or the commercials? Send us your comments at We'll read those on the air.


HARRIS: I don't know who that is playing underneath the tower cam there. Good morning, Miami! Where the Heats face off tonight against the Chicago Bulls. Some of the music kids listen to, I think. We know many in Florida are thinking about the NFL and the "Super Bowl" this weekend. We also wanted to make sure and not forget about the NBA.

NGUYEN: Or National Weatherperson's Day since we have ...

HARRIS: I thought it was weatherman.

NGUYEN: No, I did a Google. It's weatherperson.

HARRIS: It is weatherperson?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You think we could get away with that in this day and age?

Probably better than half of us, weather people, are women. And everybody has a great job. Hey!


NGUYEN: And our top stories, let's get to them right now. Police in Utah have arrested John and Linda Dollar, the Florida couple accused of abusing and starving five of their seven children. Detectives tracked the couple's cell phone calls and arrested them last night without incident.

The wreckage of an Afghan jetliner was found in the snowy mountains near Kabul today; 104 people were onboard. It is believed three American women were also among them. There is no immediate word on the survivors, but NATO forces are on the scene.

Earlier this morning, bishops from around the world gathered to pray for the health of Pope John Paul II. The pontiff is recovering from a respiratory infection that sent him to the hospital earlier this week. He's now expected to bless the faithful tomorrow.

HARRIS: The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and controversy ahead in our "Legal Briefs". Jury selection in the Michael Jackson case is in full swing. We'll look at what is next in his child molestation trial.

Later on "House Call" researchers say heart disease is the number one killer of women surpassing breast cancer. Our Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks how a few simple life changing steps can lower your risks.


HARRIS: Well police in Utah have arrested a Florida couple accused of torturing five of their children. Police say the children were victims of shock treatment and were forced to sleep in one closet. Police also say the kids were so mall nourished they looked like holocaust victims.

Also, jury selection in Michael Jackson's child molestation trial enters a new phase; 250 potential jurors have been chosen. Next up lawyers on both sides question them.

Two very different cases on the docket today, but both alleging the mistreatment of children. Joining our legal roundtable, from Houston, Texas, former prosecutor Nelda Blair and in our Washington, D.C. bureau Lida Rodriguez-Taseff; she is a civil liberties attorney.

I want to understand, Lida, let me start with you, the system in Florida. A lot of people are going to want to blame the system here, but the state can't be responsible for every child within its borders. It can't be. Correct?

LIDA RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF, CIVIL LIBERTIES ATTORNEY: Well, Tony, let's talk about what the state was doing in this particular case. These kids were adopted. Meaning that the state at some point passed judgment on these people and determined that they were fit to be parents.

What did the state do? Because people who malnourish children. You're talking about two little kid who were 12 years old, who weighed what four-year-olds weigh. You are talking about extreme mistreatment. People don't wake up one day and start doing that. What did the state do to determine these people were fit to be adoptive parents? Obviously, not enough. Because these people, mistreated five out of seven children.

HARRIS: But, Nelda, where do you weigh in on this? At some point the state can only be responsible for so long. It's not the state's responsibility to raise children.

NELDA BLAIR, FMR. PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: That's exactly right. These people adopted many of those children 10 years ago. No telling how long this has been going on. But it is not the government that has failed these children. It's people, it is society in general. Families, friends, just acquaintances over that long period of time somebody knew what was going on. Someone should have noticed that these children were malnourished. That they were abused. Someone should have spoken up. That's where the children have been failed.

HARRIS: But, Nelda, let me ask you, doesn't the state have some responsibility once you are parents in the adoptive program? Once you are in that program, doesn't the state have at least some kind of minimum responsibility to offer up some kind of annual progress report to find out how these kids are adjusting? How they are doing?

BLAIR: Adoption usually takes a period of time, that's where the investigation happens. But once children are adopted, they are just like biological children. They are -- have the same rights. They have the same responsibilities, the parents do.

And there are no big brother looking over the shoulder just like there aren't over a normal parent. But, again, there needs to be an outcry. Someone needs to say this is what is happening to these kids when that happens. Someone knows. Someone knows.

HARRIS: Yes. You know, Lida, you can't -- there is no deny the fact the community also failed these children. I guess, I come back to the same point. There seems to me to be some kind of gap in the law here where these adoptive parents should at least have to report something on the well-being of these kids.

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: Well, you know, you are talking gap in the law. This is a perfect example of the gap in the law. The child welfare agency comes in and investigates after the 16-year-old is taken to the hospital with broken head and bruises all over his neck. They go in, they investigate.

What do they do? They leave a note for the parents saying we want you to show up to talk about this situation of abuse. If these kids looked like holocaust victims why weren't these people arrested on the spot? Why did we have to engage in a national man hunt to find them? It's because the state doesn't care enough about the well-being of children.

HARRIS: Let's move on to the Michael Jackson jury selection process. Nelda, we don't know -- I don't know a lot of the evidence in the case. I know some of it has leaked out in grand jury testimony, that's a whole other issue. This is really a critical point in this trial. Can we agree on that? This jury selection process is very critical?

BLAIR: Crucial, absolutely crucial. It's going to make or break the prosecution's case. And it's going to make a difference as to whether or not the defense can properly defend him. Who sits on the jury is absolutely critical.

HARRIS: Look, you are a former prosecutor. What is a prosecutor in this particular case looking for in jurors?

BLAIR: You are looking for people who are going to believe the child. Who is really the only vital testimony against Michael Jackson. You are looking for people who abhor child sexual abuse. People who maybe are not avid fans of Michael Jackson. But definitely people who are going to listen and not think that this child is making things up. That's where the really critical point comes to.

HARRIS: And Lida, the defense can't be totally against those kinds of jurors because they are trying to proffer the argument Michael Jackson isn't guilty?

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: The prosecution is looking for juries that are easily led, malleable and that listen to the government and accept everything the government says.


On the other hand, the defense is looking for people who kind of question authority and wonder whether or not the prosecution here has an ax to grind. So they are looking for a little bit different kind of juror here. But you know, as we start getting into the questions that these jurors will be asked, during jury selection, and that they were asked in this jury questionnaire that they had to fill out, you got to start wondering whether or not those questions are infecting the testimony that's going to be presented at trial or whether or not it doesn't even matter what the testimony is because the questions are deadly?

HARRIS: OK. I got to leave it there. I'm flat out of time. We got weeks and months to talk about this case.

BLAIR: That's right.

HARRIS: I'm sure we will. Thank you both very much.

BLAIR: Thank you.

RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF: Thank you, Tony.

NGUYEN: I want to tell you a few changes in our programming line-up this morning. CNN SATURDAY MORNING welcomes a brand new show at 9:30 Eastern, "Open House" is what it is called. About buying, selling refinancing and Gerri Willis takes you through it all. Then at 10:00 a.m. "DOLAN's UNSCRIPTED" debuts on CNN. It is an hour on personal finance. And for fans of the "Novak Zone", note a new time, 2:30 Eastern p.m. today.

HARRIS: We want to get to our e-mail question and your responses. Are you looking forward to the game tomorrow or the commercials?

NGUYEN: Well, Diane from Baldwin, Georgia says: "I just watched your piece on the Philadelphia Eagles selling those pink hats." Referring to Rick Harrow. "Please let your viewers know that this was started during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and was designed to raise money for breast cancer. The response from the Philadelphia fans was overwhelming and Philadelphia Eagles fans are the best."

So, apparently, she will be watching the game.

HARRIS: With a rooting interest, absolutely.

And we want to remind you to send the e-mails along at We'll be reading more of them in the next hour, at the top of the hour, at 9 o'clock.

NGUYEN: Straight ahead on "House Call" with our Doctor Sanjay Gupta, women and heart disease. How a few simple lifestyle changes can make a difference in saving your life.

I'm Betty Nguyen.

HARRIS: And I'm Tony Harris. We'll see you again at the top of the hour. "House Call" and your top stories are straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HARRIS: Now "Now in the News": A Florida couple accused of starving and torturing five of their adopted children have been captured in Utah. John and Linda Dollar are being held in a county jail on Florida charges of aggravated child abuse. Deputies easily tracked the Dollars because they continued using their cell phones.

President Bush is back from a five-state trip to sell his plan to overhaul Social Security. One stop was Nebraska where some 10,000 people turned out to hear the president. Several Omaha residents were invited to take the stage to tell their stories.

The wreckage of an Afghan jet liner with 104 people aboard has been spotted near Kabul by a NATO helicopter. There's no immediate indication of survivors, but a rescue and recovery team has been airlifted to the site. The plane went missing Thursday during a snowstorm.

Bishops pray for the Pope John Paul II. A delegation of them visited him this morning at a hospital in Rome. They reported the pope is feeling better after suffering a respiratory infection and is eager to return to work. He'll deliver his traditional blessing tomorrow from the hospital. But an aide will read the sermon.

Those are our headlines. "HOUSE CALL", with Doctor Sanjay Gupta, starts right now.


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