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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Don Imus Under Fire; Interview With Al Sharpton; Innocent Man Executed in Texas Arson Case?

Aired April 9, 2007 - 22:00   ET

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


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening.
Don Imus says he's not a racist, and he's sorry. But sorry is not good enough for CBS Radio and MSNBC. They have suspended the "Imus in the Morning" radio show and its TV simulcast for two weeks for the remarks he made about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

Does that end the controversy, however? Sorry is certainly not enough for the Reverend Al Sharpton. He wants the radio talk show host fired, told it to his face today during a heated exchange. We will talk with the Reverend Sharpton -- that interview in just a moment.

As for Imus, he also says he was trying to be funny. We will let you be the judge.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): The shock jock who shoots from the hip...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "IMUS IN THE MORNING")

DON IMUS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: So, I watched the basketball game last night between a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women's final.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: ... stuck his foot right in his mouth.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "IMUS IN THE MORNING")

IMUS: Some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and...

BERNARD MCGUIRK, PRODUCER: Some hard-core hos.

IMUS: That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: There was more.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "IMUS IN THE MORNING")

IMUS: The girls from Tennessee, they all looked cute, you know? So, like -- kind of like, I don't know...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spike Lee (INAUDIBLE)

IMUS: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MCGUIRK: The jigaboos vs. the wannabes.

IMUS: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: The reaction was swift by many who blasted the remarks as racist, sexist, basically inexcusable. Still, Imus didn't apologize until two full days later.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "IMUS IN THE MORNING")

IMUS: Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid. And we're sorry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: This morning, Imus again was contrite.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "IMUS IN THE MORNING")

IMUS: I'm not a bad person. I'm a good person. But I said a bad thing. But these young women deserve to know that it was not said with malice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: With malice or not, the outrage is only growing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE AL SHARPTON SHOW")

AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: I'm going to say what you said was racist. I'm going to say what you said was abominable. I'm going to say you should be fired for saying it.

IMUS: That's fine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Leading the charge for Imus to be fired is the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Today, Imus appeared on Sharpton's radio program. The encounter was explosive.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE AL SHARPTON SHOW")

SHARPTON: You see this young lady here? Where is she at? You see this young lady? IMUS: Yes, sir.

SHARPTON: This young lady just graduated AMDA (ph), went to Temple. She is not a nappy-headed ho. She's my daughter.

(CROSSTALK)

SHARPTON: And, when I heard what you said, I have got to defend my daughter.

This is not about whether you're a good man. It's about how you devalue, how my daughters and the daughters of a lot of people listening are going to be looked in this world.

IMUS: ... is, what was my intent? Am I some rabid, racist, vicious person who's on a rampage, screaming, and got on the radio and turned on the microphone, and said, here's what I think these women are?

That's not what I did.

SHARPTON: If you don't think your resignation is in order, what do you think the price should be that you pay? Not that I would agree with it, but I'm just curious. What do you think?

IMUS: I haven't thought about that.

SHARPTON: I know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Imus has been in hot water before.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: This was not the first time that he or those around him have made what is perceived as racist comments.

His sidekick, Sid Rosenberg, once said that Venus and Serena Williams, you will never see them posing in "Playboy," likely in "National Geographic," called them animals. One of his folks referred to outstanding journalist Gwen Ifill as a cleaning lady. They also called Bill Rhoden of "The New York Times," a sports columnist there, a quota hire.

So, it is not as if this is an isolated incident.

COOPER: Imus is paid to attract controversy. He's also paid to bring in big names.

His show, heard on more than 100 stations, is a magnet for politicians, newsmakers, and journalists. When they have something to say, they often say it to Imus and his millions of listeners.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "IMUS IN THE MORNING")

IMUS: And I apologized for the remarks that we made and I made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Although he says he is sorry, some are wondering if this latest trip way across the line will cost Imus his career.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, as you just watched, the Reverend Al Sharpton had Imus on his radio show today. He made it clear that, no matter what the intent was, Imus must be held accountable.

I spoke with Reverend Sharpton just after the announcement of Imus' two-week suspension.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Reverend, MSNBC has pulled him off the air for a two- week suspension. CBS Radio has done the same for a two-week suspension. Is that enough?

SHARPTON: No, I think it's clearly not enough. I think it's some baby steps in the right direction.

The issue is that, if they're conceding his remarks were racist and that his remarks were repugnant, then he should be terminated. Again, the issue for us is a regulatory single standard. The FCC, that gives license to both of those entities, have rules. You cannot sit up on public-regulated television and make just racist remarks as one and claim that's free speech.

COOPER: I want to play a little clip from your radio program today, where you interviewed Don Imus.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE AL SHARPTON SHOW")

SHARPTON: If you walk away from this unscathed, the next guy can say whatever he wants and just say, I'm sorry.

(CROSSTALK)

IMUS: Unscathed? Are you crazy? How am I unscathed by this? Don't you think I'm humiliated?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: He also apologized for what he said. He said he's a good person who, you know, basically said something stupid. Do you buy his apology? Do you think it was sincere?

SHARPTON: Again, the question is not his sincerity. The question is his violation.

I think that we can save ourselves a lot of time, Anderson, if we stop acting as if this is about personal feelings on either side. This is about we're dealing with an FCC that had no problem sanctioning a television station and Janet Jackson for a wardrobe misfit. Here, we're saying that, are you going to have a standard where people can call people some nappy-headed hos and continue to stay on the air and advertisers continue to subsidize it? That's the issue here.

COOPER: Do you think people should go on his show? His show is popular with these -- the high-powered journalists, the Tim Russerts of the world, as well as presidential candidates.

SHARPTON: I think that, clearly, anyone that goes on the show now, even after the parent companies have said what was done here, is saying that they identify with that.

And they clearly, in my judgment, have stepped over the line of a lot of people that say, enough of this is enough. And I might add many of us have had to stand against some people that are friends of ours, in our community, and say, no, that we cannot tolerate that on the airwaves. They have been fired. They have been suspended. So, we have been consistent here, and we intend to continue to be consistent.

COOPER: For you, I mean, you said it's not personal on either side. But, on your radio show, I mean, it did get personal today. You brought out your daughter. What was it you said?

SHARPTON: What I said to him was, I brought my daughter out, who is a young lady, had gone to Temple, then graduated from AMDA (ph) here in Manhattan, working on a career in the arts.

And I said, when you say that, you're calling her a nappy-headed ho. Do you understand what that says to me, what that says to every father, every mother in America about a woman child, about a black?

I mean, what I wanted is, the audience and him to understand the human side of this. This not just those of us in public life that give and take. You have these young ladies that worked hard to some academic excellence and then some athletic excellence that we said, don't be in the streets. Don't be destructive. They did all of that.

And you are still going to call them nappy-headed hospital, and think we're not going to respond, and stand up and do something about it?

COOPER: Reverend Sharpton, appreciate your perspective. Thanks.

SHARPTON: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Of course, not everyone thinks Don Imus should be fired.

Radio personality and CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck believes Imus should keep his job. Why? We will speak to him in a moment.

First, more perspective from Amy Holmes, a conservative analyst and speechwriter for former Senator Bill Frist, and Stephen A. Smith of ESPN and a sportswriter for "The Philadelphia Inquirer." Both joined me a few minutes ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Stephen, CBS, NBC both suspending Don Imus for two weeks; is that enough?

STEPHEN A. SMITH, "PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER": No, it isn't. He should be fired. I don't think there's any question in my mind about that.

And it's not necessarily because of what he said, Anderson. It's because of -- you know, when -- his initial response, once the heat was coming down, is that it was something stupid, and, essentially, it's allowable; it should be allowable; it's not really a big issue. And I think it was very disingenuous on his part.

I think his response was disingenuous. And I think it really crystallized where he was really coming from and, more importantly, his executive producer as well for his show. I think they should both be fired.

COOPER: He says he's a good person, just said a stupid thing. You think this shows something deeper.

SMITH: Well, I don't know whether it shows deeper or not. But I know to judge people by their actions, especially when you're an individual that has been in this industry since 1971, especially when you have had a syndicated show since 1996.

Know this man's history. He's a veteran in this business. He knows the dos and the don'ts. And he went on that third rail. He not only tinkered with the third rail. He crossed it, because, evidently, he felt that he could get away with it. And I think it's incumbent upon all of us to make sure that he doesn't.

COOPER: Amy, this two-week suspension, is this a corporation's way of sort of trying to push this away for as long as possible, see if the heat dies down, and then just allow him to kind of come back quietly?

AMY HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think it is. And I think that all of three of us would agree, if we said similar things on a broadcast, we would be canned instantly. And it's surprising to me that this -- it took this long for this decision to be made.

But I do think that there's something deeper here worth investigating. Don Imus said that he didn't know where these words came from. Well, they came from his mouth, but they also come from the radio every day, from music videos. There is, unfortunately, this pernicious, invidious element in our pop culture of the degradation of African-American women.

And I think I would like to see the black community come together, as happened after the Michael Richards fiasco, to say, not only should Don Imus be condemned, but anyone who is using this type of language to denigrate women of color. SMITH: I completely agree with her. But, at the same time, I think we also need to understand that it starts with dealing with individuals like Don Imus, in terms of their actions, because, when you look at it, certainly, he's an individual that's been a veteran in this business quite a -- for quite a long time. He knows exactly how inflammatory those statements were going to be.

Let's keep in mind that, if this was something that was said about a Jewish person, or a group of Jewish females, or a group of white individuals or white females, the likelihood is that he might have suffered something significantly more than a two-week suspension.

COOPER: Well, those who support him say, look, he's an equal- opportunity offender, that he says, you know, stupid, hurtful things about Jewish people and about gays and about Catholics.

SMITH: Really?

HOLMES: I wouldn't say that's a great defense, you know, for Don Imus fans there, to say two wrongs make a right.

But, you know, Stephen, I don't think we should be letting folks off the hook who use these kinds of slurs every day...

SMITH: I'm not implying that we should.

HOLMES: ... to make money, to sell albums, who -- who use this to enrich themselves and make themselves more popular...

SMITH: We don't disagree on that.

HOLMES: ... at the expense of African-American women.

SMITH: We don't disagree on that at all.

HOLMES: And I would -- I would also add that, if Don Imus were sincere in his apology, the first people he should have apologized to were the women of the Rutgers basketball team, a private apology to them, also a public apology that could have been printed in the Rutgers newspaper. He should have sought a meeting with those young women and also with the Tennessee basketball players, who he dragged into this ugly racial taxonomy.

COOPER: Stephen, I know you spoke to the coach of the Rutgers team. How are they responding to all this?

(CROSSTALK)

SMITH: Well, she was appalled by it. She certainly felt very, very badly for her kids, because she coaches these women.

COOPER: Did he get a pass early on? It seemed like it wasn't until over the weekend, and bloggers really picked this up, that -- that the media -- you know, the rest of the media kind of got dragged along.

HOLMES: I think that's right, Anderson.

And I think that, you know, for a long time, his remarks have been overlooked, again, because of his popularity and his ability to sell books. So, you have had people go on who -- at least in this point in time, if they go on in the future, can be called sellouts.

I don't -- this -- what this man said was disgraceful towards these women on the basketball team, and what he said about African- Americans in general. So, I would hope that politicians, people who have any ounce of respectability, would not grace his airwaves with his presence.

SMITH: Can we get real about something here? It happens to be also because he's white. The fact that he's white, and he happens to be a white radio host who is highly successful, has a lot to do with it, because I'm here to tell you something right now. Had it been me, I would be gone. I would not have a job today.

HOLMES: Stephen, I'm not so sure about that. We see politicians...

SMITH: I am.

HOLMES: We see politicians going on Al Sharpton's show, who himself was found guilty of defaming an innocent man by repeatedly calling him a racist, and we see our politicians going on his show, which I think is disgraceful.

And that's another element of this, is, why is it that, when people get into trouble, they run to Al Sharpton's show, instead of apologizing to the people that they have directly offended?

When I watched this interview today, I was watching these two radio egos, one demanding the supplication of the other, the other one groveling for forgiveness, and forgetting who are the women who were insulted in this in the first place?

SMITH: Because they're trying to reach the masses.

And the reality of the situation is, it's very difficult. They should be apologizing to those women at Rutgers University. They're -- make no mistake about that. But what they're trying to do is to appease the African-American community, because somebody has sent them some sort of message that that is who they have offended, and that's all they have offended, where, in fact, they have offended every decent person out there, who would find this reprehensible and repugnant.

COOPER: And, two -- two weeks from now, if -- if the attention on this has died down, and he's allowed to go back on the air, what does that say about MSNBC? What does that say about NBC, about CBS?

SMITH: Well, I think what it says, more than anything else, is that you can offend black people, and it's cool. It's all right. They will get over it. They will let it go. And, somehow, some way, the firestorm will die down, and we will move on with life as usual. If it happens with other communities, that doesn't appear to be the case. But, when it pertains to African-Americans, we can be a bit more tolerant. That's, to me, the message that it would send.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: And I would add that it would show that these companies are spineless and they're willing to put profits over principle.

SMITH: Amen.

COOPER: Amy Holmes, Stephen Smith, good discussion. Thanks.

SMITH: All right.

HOLMES: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: We are going to continue the discussion when 360 returns with television anchor and radio talk show host Glenn Beck. He's rarely predictable. And he won't be this time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): The question is, why?

GLENN BECK, HOST, "GLENN BECK": He's a miserable guy. This is what the guy does. He takes a hot stick and he pokes it into people.

COOPER: So, he wants Imus fired, right? No. Glenn Beck's surprising take on the man he calls mean and offensive.

Also: The fire killed three young girls. Their father paid the ultimate price.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Did the state of Texas wrongly execute an innocent man?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They did.

KAYE: You have no doubt?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no doubt. They had absolutely no proof that that was a set fire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So, how does he know? One horrible fire and the new science that can tell accident from arson -- ahead on 360.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE AL SHARPTON SHOW") SHARPTON: You see this young lady here? Where is she at? You see this young lady?

IMUS: Yes, sir.

SHARPTON: This young lady just graduated AMDA (ph), and went to Temple. She is not a nappy-headed ho. She's my daughter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Powerful moment on Reverend Al Sharpton's radio show today -- Don Imus clearly on the defensive.

Well, it's fair to say that Glenn Beck knows some of what Imus may be going through. As the host of his own talk show on Headline News, as well as a nationally syndicated radio program, he knows what goes through a broadcaster's mind when he's on the air and what sometimes comes out of his mouth.

I spoke with Glenn Beck earlier tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: You're a radio guy. You're on for hours every day.

BECK: Yes.

COOPER: Is it -- do you understand how a Don Imus could say something like this?

BECK: Yes and no. You know, that's a pretty colossal error to make. But, in Don Imus' case, that's who he is. This is what he...

COOPER: That's his shtick.

BECK: That's his shtick.

And, I mean, it's one thing to say, well, I don't know what he says about everybody else. He does. That's what he's been doing since -- I don't even know -- 1971?

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: He...

BECK: Everyone.

COOPER: ... says comments about gays, about women...

BECK: Everybody.

COOPER: ... about everybody.

BECK: He is -- I really -- I don't know Don myself, but I know people who have worked with him. And he's a miserable human being. And... COOPER: He's a miserable human being?

(LAUGHTER)

BECK: Oh, he is.

I mean, he's not -- I mean, listen to him talk. He's a miserable guy. I think the guy is not a racist. I think he's -- I think he hates everybody equally, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: But does that excuse what he said?

BECK: Well, you know, here you -- no. But here's where you have a problem.

This is what he was hired to do. This is why people listen to him.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: And this is making money for a corporation?

BECK: Yes. It's making money for everybody all around. This is what he does.

COOPER: Will he be fired?

BECK: I hope not. I hope not.

COOPER: Because?

BECK: Because I think we're entering a culture where, first of all, if you don't like his -- if you don't like what he does, as a corporation, then you should get rid of him, because all of it is offensive.

If you live in a culture where you can make one mistake and come back and say, wow, sorry, don't even know what I was thinking, stupid, because you were going for comedy -- he's going for laughs -- and they can fire you after you have been on the air, with this record this long, who's next? Who's next?

COOPER: For these companies, though, isn't it -- it's ultimately a financial decision. They will decide whether or not the -- the cost of keeping him...

BECK: Yes.

COOPER: ... from bad publicity, from the uproar, they will make some sort of judgment about how long this uproar will last...

BECK: Right.

COOPER: ... and -- and they will weigh that against how much money he makes for them over the long term.

BECK: I'm...

COOPER: And that is what they will decide on.

BECK: Yes.

I'm a capitalist. I believe in the capitalist system. I think you let the market decide. But part of the market is also, in viewers and listeners, is what people want. Let the people decide. If the people -- people can decide if it's offensive or not by listening or not listening.

I personally find it reprehensible. I haven't found Imus -- I used to find Imus funny. I haven't found Imus funny in a while. He seems to be just mean and offensive.

COOPER: Is political correctness gone awry? I mean, everyone sort of, you know, talks about political correctness.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Do you think that's what this is? Or do think this is -- you say it's reprehensible comedy.

(CROSSTALK)

BECK: Let me tell you -- let me tell you, when everybody says, as a community, we don't use those -- that kind of language, that's offensive.

But there can't be this double standard. And it's not just the African-American community.

COOPER: But you don't believe that there are -- I think there are -- you don't believe that there are things which an African- American person can say that a white person who has not had the same experience cannot say?

BECK: No. No.

COOPER: Really?

BECK: That would be like me saying, the Duke lacrosse team, nothing but a bunch of toothless hicks, and then Jesse Jackson coming on and saying, well, look at them, they're a bunch of toothless hicks, and then me saying, how dare you say that?

What -- if I can say it, why can't he say it? If he can say it, I should say it.

The point is, there are certain things that we don't -- we choose, as a society, not to say. But, when you introduce fear into shutting people up -- look, I would never say what Imus said. I find it offensive. I would never use the N-word. I don't think we should use it. But we shouldn't use fear to get people to stop using it. When you use fear, it doesn't change people's hearts. It closes them down.

COOPER: Glenn, thanks.

BECK: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Glenn Beck.

For some facts on Imus, let's check out the "Raw Data" tonight.

Don Imus was born in 1940, served in the Marine Corps. He began his radio career as a deejay in 1968. He has battled addictions to alcohol and cocaine. And his show has been in syndicated since 1993.

Coming up next: John Edwards' family feud with a neighbor -- details in "Raw Politics."

And later: the new science of investigating arson and a case that one experts says sent the wrong man to the death chamber -- a 360 investigation coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Baghdad is safe. Baghdad isn't safe -- Senator John McCain's latest position on Iraq.

"Raw Politics" -- next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: A primary day that's getting bigger almost by the minute, John McCain's double backflip on the war in Iraq, and why Elizabeth Edwards won't let her kids go near one of the neighbors, it's all material for "Raw Politics" tonight, brought to us by Joe Johns -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, we begin with a question: Why does a date almost a year away, February 5, 2008, matter so much right now?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): Answer: Because it's the date of a primary night on an almost national scale, and it could tell you who's going to be on the ticket in the next presidential election. The nickname for it, which you're probably going to get sick of hearing, is super- duper Tuesday -- and New York Governor Eliot Spitzer signing legislation to give his state, which just happens to be the home of Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, as much relevance as all the other states voting on February 5.

But the guy who was out hunting for dollars in the Big Apple today was Senator Barack Obama, trying to steal the show, literally, with an appearance on "Letterman."

Senator John McCain of Arizona is back from his trip to Iraq. He says he would rather lose a campaign than lose the war.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I believe that we have to succeed. Otherwise, this country will have much greater problems than anything to do with my political ambitions.

JOHNS: McCain is still trying to put out the fire sparked by his claim that parts of Baghdad are safe enough to walk around in.

In North Carolina, it's not exactly the Hatfields and McCoys yet, but a neighborhood feud is brewing. Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, says she's scared of what she calls the rabid Republican who lives across the street from her house.

The neighbor, Monty Johnson, once pulled out a shotgun to chase people off his land. And he has a Rudy Giuliani 2008 sign on a fence near the Edwards' property. Mrs. Edwards say she's doesn't want her kids going near him.

And that's "Raw Politics."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Hey, Joe, going back to Senator McCain, his first- quarter fund-raising numbers pretty disappointing. How is the campaign trying to turn things around on the money front?

JOHNS: Yes, he was third place among Republicans, in fact.

And the answer to that is simple: Raise more money. Hold more fund-raisers. They even have a new finance chief. The question, though, is whether they're actually going to end up spending a lot of money right now. And that could be a problem for McCain.

COOPER: Joe, thanks. Appreciate it.

Don't miss "Raw Politics" and the days headlines with the first- ever 360 podcast. Dun-dun-da-da. Get the download at -- that was my little music there. Get the download at CNN.com/360podcast, or you can go to iTunes. It's not right there right now, apparently. The 360 daily podcast debuts tomorrow morning.

Still to come tonight: a deadly crime that is -- has a whole -- well, it's a whole lot easier to commit than it is to solve -- a 360 investigation into how they may be changing, but not so soon enough for one man.

We will be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): The fire killed three young girls. Their father paid the ultimate price. KAYE: Did the state of Texas wrongly execute an innocent man?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They did.

KAYE: You have this doubt?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no doubt. They had absolutely no proof that that was a set fire.

COOPER: So, how does he know? One horrible fire and the new science that can tell accident from arson.

Plus: teaching abstinence here, preaching sex here.

MATT KELLER, PASTOR, NEXT LEVEL CHURCH: God created sex, that God is for sex.

COOPER: Grappling with abortion, body and soul.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Only that I loved him, and that I was sorry, and that I would hold him one day in heaven.

COOPER: "What Is a Christian?" -- sex, salvation, and you -- ahead on 360.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, imagine if police didn't check a murder scene for DNA evidence or if a forensic pathologist didn't calculate the entry angle of a deadly bullet. They'd be ignoring one of the strongest tools in their crime solving kit, which is science.

Well, that is exactly what some experts say is happening with fire investigations. These experts claim that tens of thousands of fires that are ruled arson each year may not be arsons at all, and the people convicted of setting them may actually be innocent. It is a startling claim.

Tonight, here's CNN's Randi Kaye with an in-depth 360 investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two days before Christmas, 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham was home with his three daughters. His wife was out shopping for presents.

EUGENIA WILLINGHAM, TODD WILLINGHAM'S STEPMOTHER: About 10 a.m. in the morning the house was black. He heard someone calling Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.

KAYE: The Willingham home in Corsicana, Texas, was on fire. One-year-old twins Kameron and Karmen and 2-year-old Amber were trapped. WILLINGHAM: He tried to go into their room. And it was down a hall, and he burned his hand on the door facing.

KAYE: Willingham never reached his baby girls. All three of them died. Willingham, who escaped, told family and police he desperately tried to save his daughters. But Doug Fogg and other fire investigators found evidence they say proved otherwise.

DOUG FOGG, RETIRED CORSICANA ASSISTANT FIRE CHIEF: Pour patterns on the floor, they told me that hey, you know, something, a good possibility something was introduced here.

KAYE (on camera): Such as an accelerant.

FOGG: Such as an accelerant.

KAYE (voice-over): Willingham, then 23, who had a history of trouble with the law, was charged with setting the fire, convicted of arson, homicide and sentenced to death.

But what if Fogg and the others got it wrong?

JOHN LENTINI, ARSON EXPERT: Happens all the time. There's maybe, you know, 75,000 suspicious fires every year, that's 357,000 chances to get it wrong.

KAYE: John Lentini is a fire investigator and a forensic scientist. He's analyzed more than 2,500 fire scenes and conducted large scale experiments like this one at Eastern Kentucky University, to better understand the science behind how a fire moves and why.

Lentini says for too long investigators have relied on folklore, not fact, untested myths instead of science.

LENTINI: They haven't had any science training at all since high school. And they go back to their fire department, and they teach the myths to the next guy coming up.

KAYE: Lentini was asked by the Innocence Project to review the Willingham case. He calls the findings by Fogg and the other fire investigators B.S., bad science.

Among them, something called crazed glass.

(on camera) The myth has been that crazed glass, glass with webbing or cracking in the middle of it, has been caused by rapid heating. For years that has led investigators to determine fires were arson. But now science proves that it's not rapid heating that causes the glass to craze. It's rapid cooling.

(voice-over) At this Maryland lab, Lentini heated up glass, then quickly cooled it by spraying it with water, the same way a fireman's hose would cool a window.

(on camera) Let's take it off and see if we spray some water on it, which is what you find is actually what causes the crazing. LENTINI: Yes, this is crazed over here.

KAYE: I can see in there the pattern.

LENTINI: Yes.

KAYE: And that didn't happen until you put the water on it, which is completely opposite of what investigators have been saying all these years.

LENTINI: Right.

KAYE (voice-over): Lentini, with the help of fire investigator Doug Carpenter, also debunked one of the greatest arson myths about temperature.

The fire on the right is burning with gasoline, a common accelerant. The other is just burning wood. Take a look at temperatures. Nearly identical.

DOUG CARPENTER, FIRE INVESTIGATOR: It's a common myth that higher temperatures are produced by gasoline than other types of common materials, and that just is not true.

KAYE (on camera): Which would lead investigators to say that the gasoline fire would be arson just because the temperature's higher but really, this shows that that's not the case.

CARPENTER: That is correct. So you'd come to an unreliable conclusion.

KAYE (voice-over): This video was taken by investigator Fogg after the Willingham fire.

FOGG: Burn patterns, unusual to a normal fire burn.

KAYE: Willingham was convicted after Fogg and the others noticed what they believed were pour pattern on the floor, irregular burn marks that show where an accelerant was poured.

But Lentini says science proves these pour patterns were really caused by a recently accepted phenomenon called flashover, the point, when a fire in a room becomes a room on fire.

LENTINI: They didn't understand flashover. They didn't understand that in an accidental fire you can burn the floor. And if you go into a fire thinking that the floor isn't supposed to burn unless it has help, and you see a burned floor, then you're going to jump to the conclusion that it's arson already.

KAYE: Fires were always believed to burn upward, but Lentini has proven they can burn downward during flashover. The floor, lights, tables, even chairs burst into flames when gases spread downward.

In the Willingham case investigators concluded three separate fires had been set. But Lentini says it was flashover. He set this compartment fire to help illustrate flashover. We watched as the carpet began to smoke, then ignited without ever being lit directly.

(on camera) So flashover causes some of the same patterns and gives off some of the same indicators that an arson fire would?

CARPENTER: That's correct. You can set two fires, one with gasoline, and one with some accidental scenario and come out with the same -- the same pattern.

KAYE (voice-over): In the end, Lentini and his team claimed to have debunked more than 20 arson indicators cited in the Willingham case.

(on camera) What is your response to them saying there weren't pour patterns, there weren't points of origin, flashover caused all of this. The entire room was on fire?

FOGG: I would really disagree with them and tell them that they should have been there when we were fighting the fire. They should have been there as we dug it out.

KAYE: You stand by your findings?

FOGG: Oh, yes.

KAYE: Do you worry at all that you might have helped convict an innocent man based on outdated indicators?

FOGG: No.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, when we come back, science might have saved Cameron Todd Willingham from Death Row, might have. But even with such high stakes, see why some fire investigators continue to resist using that science.

Also ahead on this Monday after Easter, a 360 special report, "What is a Christian?" Sex and salvation. Sound likes a simple question. But some of the answers might surprise you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Arson is listed as the cause of tens of thousands of fires every year in America. But now those numbers are being challenged.

Before the break we introduced you to a Texas man sentenced to death for setting a fire that killed his three young daughters. The Innocence Project took up his case. And this is where the story becomes riveting.

Fire investigators are the ones who decide the cause of a fire. But what if everything they've learned about fires and arson is out of date and flat-out wrong?

Once again, CNN's Randi Kaye. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAYE (voice-over): On a cool December morning in 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham told police he did all he could to save his three little girls from a fire in their home. One-year-old twins Kameron and Karmen and 2-year-old Amber all died.

Willingham escaped with minor burns, only to be charged with homicide by arson, convicted and sentenced to die.

(on camera) What motive would your son have had to take the lives of his three kids?

WILLINGHAM: There was never a motive.

KAYE (voice-over): But fire investigators analyzed the scene say Willingham, who had a history of domestic violence and drinking, set the fire that killed his girls. In fact, they found what they believed were more than 20 indicators the fire at Willingham's home was arson.

But in the years since, four leading fire experts, including John Lentini, claim to have debunked those findings, which they say were based on old and unreliable arson myths.

LENTINI: Total B.S., bad science.

KAYE (on camera): So you're telling me that some of these people that have been convicted of arsons possibly spending time in prison, maybe even on Death Row, are there because of somebody's opinion?

LENTINI: Yes.

KAYE (voice-over): Forensic scientist and fire investigator John Lentini has worked for decades to pump science into arson investigations. And in the 1980s, along with dozens of other investigators, devised a new science based strategy for investigating fires.

If investigators don't understand science, Lentini says, they can't possibly understand fire.

(on camera) In your opinion, based on your scientific findings, was Todd Willingham innocent?

LENTINI: Yes. He did not light that fire.

KAYE: Still, Texas Governor Rick Perry, after receiving new evidence debunking the original findings, went ahead with Willingham's execution. The governor would not comment on the case for this story.

WILLINGHAM: They tell me that it was too old, it had been too long, that you've -- you know, you've got 30 days to present new evidence in the state of Texas.

KAYE (on camera): Is that a good enough explanation for you? WILLINGHAM: No, no. I think if someone -- if it had been 20 years and they found something, at least a shred of evidence, they shouldn't go ahead and kill someone.

KAYE (voice-over): Cameron Todd Willingham died February 17, 2004 by lethal injection.

(on camera) So did the state of Texas wrongly execute an innocent man?

LENTINI: They did.

KAYE: You have no doubt?

LENTINI: I have no doubt. They had absolutely no proof that that was a set fire.

KAYE (voice-over): Former Corsicana, Texas, assistant fire chief Doug Fogg helped convict Willingham with his determination of arson.

(on camera) You stand by your findings?

FOGG: Oh, yes.

KAYE: You still believe -- you still believe, after all these years, that Willingham...

FOGG: I still believe it was a set fire.

KAYE (voice-over): So does the man who prosecuted him. John Howard Jackson calls some of Lentini's conclusions silly. He says the experts' review raises some questions, but he has no doubt Willingham is guilty.

(on camera) Why, if he was offered life in prison, did he not take it?

WILLINGHAM: He said that he was ready for the needle right then, rather than admit that he could do something like that to his children. He said, "No, I'll never admit to something that I did not do."

KAYE (voice-over): What does Doug Fogg think of the new science- based arson techniques?

FOGG: In reality, it's not new science. It's just people are probably using it more than what they did in the past.

KAYE (on camera): See, now they might say that an arson investigator or fire investigators like yourself just maybe don't want to admit that they've been getting it wrong all of these years.

FOGG: They can say whatever they want to, you know. It's their opinion, and they're entitled to it.

KAYE: It wasn't until 1992 that a guide detailing the ground- breaking new strategy was published. Immediately, it was met with fierce resistance. The majority of investigators rejected it.

In fact, it took about 10 years for the International Association of Arson Investigators to endorse it.

(voice-over) The science is now considered the gold standard of fire investigation by the International Association of Arson Investigators and is taught around the country.

(on camera) How many innocent people wrongly convicted of arson do you expect might be behind bars?

BARRY SCHECK, CO-DIRECTOR, THE INNOCENCE PROJECT: There are hundreds of people at least whose cases have to be re-examined.

KAYE (voice-over): Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project says Dan Dougherty on Death Row in Pennsylvania could be one of them.

LENTINI: Fires are accidental until proven otherwise. None of the evidence in the case indicates an arson fire.

KAYE (on camera): So he shouldn't be on Death Row?

LENTINI: No, he shouldn't be on Death Row. He shouldn't even be in prison. He shouldn't have been tried.

KAYE (voice-over): Dougherty was sentenced to death in 2000 for a fire more than a decade earlier that killed two of his young sons. Neighbors say he tried to put the fire out.

But years later an ex-wife who was in a custody dispute with Dougherty at the time, told police he confessed to her he'd set it. The jury bought it, and the arson evidence.

Like the Willingham case, Lentini says investigators in the Dougherty case mistook burn patterns on the floor and apparent points of origin as evidence of arson. He says they didn't understand science and the phenomenon of flashover. When the fire gets so hot, the entire room catches fire, even the floor.

Dougherty's son Stephen, who had not been born yet when the house burned, hopes the new science saves his dad.

STEPHEN DOUGHERTY, DAN DOUGHTERY'S SON: This makes me live, so- to-think that my dad's going to come out, make me happy and that's what keeps a smile on my face. There is no possible way that he would have ever done this to my brothers, because he said that they were his angels.

KAYE: Still, Sandy Burnette with the International Association of Arson Investigators says, the relatively new science is not a reason to reopen every arson conviction.

GUY E. SANDY BURNETTE JR., INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF ARSON INVESTIGATOR: If you're asking should there be some wholesale revision and review of every arson conviction in this country, no, absolutely not. And I think the suggestion that there's some widespread pattern of people being convicted improperly of arson, as if it were some rampant process, is simply not supported by the facts.

KAYE: Eugenia Willingham knows science won't bring her son back but hopes it helps save others.

(on camera) Tell me about this picture.

WILLINGHAM: That is spreading his ashes on his children's grave. That was his -- one of his last wishes.

KAYE: So, do you believe that your son is with his three babies, as he called them?

WILLINGHAM: Yes. I feel like they're -- they're happy. He -- he told me that God would be his final judge. And he said he didn't feel like it would turn out the same way that it did here.

KAYE: Eugenia says her son may have finally found what he fought 12 long years for, vindication.

Randi Kaye, CNN, Ardmore, Oklahoma.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, Randi Kaye has written more about this story on the 360 blog. You can check it out: CNN.com/360blog.

Still to come this evening, "What is a Christian? Sex and Salvation". Part three in our series.

Plus, the "Shot of the Day". World class violinist putting on a show for free at a crowded subway stop. Find out if anyone even stopped to listen.

And tomorrow on "American Morning", home buying season. What you need to know. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Tonight a look at faith and the so-called temptations of the flesh, the push to bring prayer to a party zone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your name?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's been called Satan's playground. But this spring the devil's got company. Young evangelical Christians, 400 strong, powered by an unusual spring break message, abstinence. That's right, don't do it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We've asked students before who are down here to party, what is your purpose in life? And I had a girl say to get drunk and to get laid by the hottest guy on the beach. (END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, that story and more coming up in a special 360, "What is a Christian? Sex and Salvation". That's in our next hour.

Also coming up, our "Shot of the Day". See what happens when you take a world famous performer with a $3 million violin and you put him in the subway. See who stops and who mostly doesn't.

First Erica Hill from Headline News has a "360 News and Business Bulletin" -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, HEADLINE NEWS ANCHOR: Anderson, a bold announcement from Iran today on its nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country is now making nuclear fuel on an industrial scale.

Now, he still insists the fuel is for peaceful purposes. The Bush administration, though, contends Iran is working on a nuclear weapon.

Iran still refuses to allow U.N. inspectors to review its nuclear program.

In Iraq thousands of Shiites gathered in the holy city of Najaf for an anti-America rally. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for the demonstration to mark the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.

And word out of the Pentagon today, the top commanders in Iraq want to extend the tours of 15,000 U.S. troops for up to four months. The order could be signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates as early as this week. The move is part of President Bush's planned troop increase.

On Wall Street this Monday a flat close. Investors were reluctant to rally despite the strong employment numbers and falling oil prices. The Dow gained nearly nine points. The NASDAQ lost two, the S&P stayed about the same.

More now on oil prices. As they fall you are not seeing prices fall at the pump. You may have noticed that on your own. Gas prices rising more than 18 cents over the past two weeks. The national average for a gallon of self serve regular, now $2.79. That is about 12 cents higher than it was a year ago, Anderson.

COOPER: Ouch!

HILL: That's right.

COOPER: Did you see "The Shot of the Day"?

HILL: I haven't seen it yet. Show me.

COOPER: I'll show you.

HILL: All right! COOPER: Morning rush hour in Washington, D.C. The guys on the left side of the screen. They're playing. The violinist, he's actually world class violinist Joshua Bell. The video was released yesterday.

Kind of an experiment. Back in January, Bell spent 43 minutes playing six classical pieces. He's playing on an 18th Century Stradivarius at a metro station. A thousand people passed by. Some gave him money, as you see. A few glanced over.

HILL: No one noticed him, though?

COOPER: Apparently not. In the end, he had $32 and change, and he makes about a thousand dollars a minute playing.

HILL: I was going to say, not bad for 43 minutes work. But when you're used to making a little bit more than that, chump change.

COOPER: It's got to be kind of a humbling experience.

HILL: He's a very talented violinist.

COOPER: We should try anchoring one day in a subway. See who pays attention.

HILL: You want to? What are you doing tomorrow?

COOPER: Not really.

HILL: Well, you are just back from vacation. Maybe we should ease that.

COOPER: Maybe next week.

HILL: All right. Sounds good.

COOPER: Erica, thanks.

HILL: Have a good night.

COOPER: WE want you to send us your shot ideas. If you see some amazing videos tell us about it: CNN.com/360. We'll put some of your best clips on the air.

And if you want another look at the shot or get the day's headlines, check out the 360 podcast. You can download our first one tomorrow morning on CNN.com/360podcast or you can get it off iTunes. Don't try to download it right now. Let me repeat. Don't try to download it right now. You have to wait until tomorrow morning.

Still to come tonight, Don Imus suspended. The right thing to do or the least that his corporate bosses could get away with? We'll ask the Reverend Al Sharpton and hear from talk show host Glenn Beck.

Then a 360 special for body and soul. "What is a Christian? Sex and Salvation". Some of the answers may just surprise you. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Balancing body and soul. Sex and salvation. From how churches deal with homosexuality to porn addiction, to the controversy over post-abortion syndromes. Stories that may surprise you, that certainly opened our eyes. "What's a Christian? Sex and Salvation" coming up shortly.

We begin, however, tonight with our top story. Don Imus and the price he'll be paying for two weeks suspension. Words that he now calls repugnant, offensive and just plain stupid. He said them last week about members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team.

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

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