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South Carolina Democratic Primary; Florida Voters; California Winter Storm; Chicago Body Found; Los Angeles Helicopter Crash, Las Vegas Hotel Fire; Second Life Game; American Woman Kidnapped; Palestinians Entering Egypt; No FBI Reward Money

Aired January 26, 2008 - 12:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Well, it is indeed decision day, at least for Democrats. In South Carolina, for the primary there, voters, righter now, are casting ballots in the first contest in the South for 2008. It's a state that has hosted heated debates with race as a sub text. Our Jessica Yellin, part of the best political team on television is live at a polling station in Columbia, South Carolina where you look kind of lonely there.
JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: You know Fredricka, it's been a pretty weak turnout so far this particular location, so far this morning, but I am told and the Democratic Party insists that they are expecting a record high turnout statewide and that's the trend we've seen on the past primaries on the Democratic side, at least, so far this year. There is a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm, more voters than in the past going to the polls for these primaries.

Now, the contest, as you have said here in South Carolina has been particularly bruising, especially the Clinton and Obama campaigns trading sharper barbs than we have seen in the past, a lot of anger and back and forth over whether the question of race and racial identity has been used appropriately in this campaign.

The beneficiary of all of that has been John Edwards who has come out with a new message that he is representing the grownup wing of the Democratic Party, sort of the conciliator in all of this.

But you know, what they're talking about in addition to all these snipings and this quibbling, are the issues and the issues, we hear them are discussing the economy, fears of a reception, a lot of questions about the availability of affordable housing because of the subprime mortgage crisis. Let's listen to what some of the candidates have been saying on the trail, here in South Carolina.


SEN HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election and a statesman thinks about the next generation. I want us to start thinking about the next generation and what we are going to do to make sure our children have the opportunities they should have.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not the glitzy candidate and I'm not the candidate with $100 million, that's the other two. I am also not the candidate spending all of my time bickering with another politician. I am out here in the trenches working and fighting for you.

SEN BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look at this crowd here, today. Look at the people behind me, today. We are defying the conventional wisdom. We are creating a new politics in a new America...


YELLIN: So one of the big issues you've heard discussed, Fredericka, is the African-American vote. This is the first state in this primary season in which African-Americans could make up 50 or 60 percent of the electorate. But another factor is the women's vote. Barack Obama seems to be appealing to women, here. In the past, that's been Hillary Clinton's constituency, and then undecided, there are really enough undecideds in this state right now to throw this race in any direction. So, we are just going to have to stay on our tippy-toes watching what happens today. It could go any which way -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. It's a fascinating race anyway you look at it. Thanks so much, Jessica. And we will be delving into the women vote, there in South Carolina and really abroad across the country later on in this hour.

Meantime, are you heading to the polls to vote in today's South Carolina primary? If so, well, tell us what it is like. Send us your videos and pictures in an iReport; perhaps, just go to

And Republican candidates are sprinting across Florida, today, covering their bases on this last weekend before Tuesday's primaries, there. Mitt Romney, out early this morning in Saint Petersburg, looking for momentum against his chief rival, John McCain. McCain, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani hold rallies later on today. And so far, all of Giuliani's eggs are in Florida's basket. His campaign's future could depend on scoring in this winner-takes-all 57 delegate's race.

Well, perhaps you think Florida and one image may come to mind, a state loaded with retirees who play a lot of ball, take a lot of long walks and many are Republican to the core. Our John Zarrella, with Florida's voters politicians don't dare ignore.


JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): This is The Villages, 68,000 people live in this well-heeled retirement community nestled between Orlando and Ocala in central Florida. About half are registered Republicans. And they know they have clout, says Richard Cole, who heads the local Republican club.

RICHARD COLE, THE VILLAGERS REPUBLICAN CLUB: The road to the White House goes through Florida and the road to Florida goes through The Villages. ZARRELLA: Cole believes 90 percent will vote. That has not been lost on the candidates. Before Tuesday's primary, all of the Republicans will have paid their respect at The Villages at least once.

PROF SUSAN MACMANUS, UNIV OF SOUTH FLORIDA: One thing we know for sure, they do know vote and they can write a check to candidates.

ZARRELLA: For these seniors, the war and national security were the main issues, but as in most places, the economy is the No. 1 concern. Savvy, well-informed voters, they expect substance from the candidates.

COLE: We need specifics and I think just the political diatribes about we need this, we need that, we need all these good things. Yeah, we do, but the candidate who is going to get the votes is the one who's going to say, here's my plan to do it.

ZARRELLA: On the other side of the coin is Paul Collins.

PAUL COLLINS, DEMOCRATIC CLUB FOR LAKE COUNTY: We have our Social Security, we have our Medicare.

ZARRELLA: What Collins, who heads the local Democratic club, doesn't have is very many voters. There are nearly as many Independents as Democrats in The Villages.

COLLINS: It gives a whole new meaning to the world lonely.

ZARRELLA: Collins says it's been impossible to get candidates here.

COLLINS: The Democratic leaders won't come here because they know it is a lost cause.

ZARRELLA: Collins admits this is Republican territory and being lonely something he and other Democrats here will just have to get use to.

John Zarrella, CNN, The Villages, Florida.


WHITFIELD: And of course, we are not done with politics. CNN's Ballot Bowl is back again this weekend. Our special political coverage gives you the chance to see the candidates unfiltered on the campaign trail. Ballot Bowl kicks off today 2:00 p.m. Eastern. And be sure to stay with us for the complete results of today's South Carolina Democratic primary. Join Wolf Blitzer and the best political team on television from the CNN election headquarters in New York. Our special coverage gets underway at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.

Well, usually mild, well not today. Southern California is dealing with a powerful winter storm. Three mountain avalanches have killed two skiers and as many as two others are still missing. And then take a look at this, a mudslide caught on tape, right there in Montara (ph), California. Residents in four Orange County canyons are being urged to evacuate. The weather service is warning flash floods could hit Orange County overnight.

Reynolds Wolf is in the Weather Center, and is this usually about the time where it is -- hey, how are you -- usually pretty wet in southern California, but this is too extreme.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Oh, you're absolutely right. I mean, this is usually the time of year that you do have the damp-er conditions in parts of southern California. I mean, earlier in the summer months, Fredricka, you have a big door of high pressure that sits right off of San Francisco, which is kind of like a blocker, it keeps a lot of the moisture away from the state. However, this time of the year, you don't have that area of high pressure, so the door is open, you have plenty of opportunities for storms and that's what we're seeing in northern California, right now.

Not a lot of action in southern California just yet. But already we've got some watches, we've got warnings, we got advisories stretched all over the L.A. basin, as far north as San Luis Obispo County up towards and Atascadero, as far south as San Diego and every place on the map where you happen to see green indicates an area where you may have an issue with flooding, mainly flood watches, flood warnings.

But notice where we are also seeing some red. That's the high elevations of the San Gabriel Mountains where rain is not going to be an issue, but snow might be. Anywhere from one to three feet snowfall possible coupled with some strong winds, possibly some 70 mile-per- hour gusts as we make our way into tomorrow afternoon. So, that could be really a rough spot for you.

Back into northern California, yesterday, north of San Francisco, in Marin County, we had some evacuations there due to flooding. Right now, much of the rainfall is in Eureka, but in the high spots, high elevations near Manchastal (ph) and parts of I-5, we're going to be seeing some light snow fall, could get heavier in Sierra, Nevada by tomorrow.

Now, let's switch gears and refocus on parts of the southeast, into Florida, into Alabama, Georgia, even into portions of Louisiana. Earlier, we have seen some scattered showers, nothing severe right now, but as we have candidates all over the state of Florida going out there and trying to get you to vote, they're going to be certainly dealing with some rain. Where they are voting today, not in Florida, but rather in South Carolina, people finally go out and vote in the primary, today, they are going to be dealing with a few scattered showers.

Now, earlier this morning, we did have some issues with sleet, even a few snowflakes, back towards Columbia, not the issue for the rest of the day. Dryer air is going to move in, which will make for a fairly nice afternoon. Skies partly cloudy, to partly sunny, that's how we're going to wrap it up. It doesn't look like it's going to be a bad weekend at all. All things considered in the southeast; however, California, what a headache. Back to you. WHITFIELD: Yeah, poor folks out there. It's been a rough ride, it seems, for a few months there in California.

WOLF: You bet.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks a lot, Reynolds.

All right, well, new speculation about a closely-watched crime investigation after a surveiller found a badly decomposed body near some train tracks in Chicago. A scheduled autopsy could she light on whether it's the body of Stacy Peterson who has been missing since October. Peterson's husband, Drew, a former police sergeant, is a suspect in her disappearance. He claims his wife probably ran off with another man.

Well, this was one hot streak no one in Las Vegas wanted to see. We will have the latest this spectacular casino fire, just ahead in a live report. You're in the NEWSROOM.


WHITFIELD: A three-way crash in Los Angeles, sure, it happens every day, but not like this. A helicopter slammed into Highway 110 and burst into a huge fireball. Traffic was backed up for miles. Rescuers arrived to find the chopper still burning. They pulled one body from the wreckage.

And when you see the pictures, it is hard to believe there were only minor injuries. Black smoke and flames pouring from a Las Vegas hotel, CNN's Kara Finnstrom is Las Vegas where investigators are looking for exactly what caused this inferno.


KARA FINNSTROM, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It was a fire with all the spectacle of Las Vegas. Huge plumes of black smoke, falling chunks of burning debris.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We ran over to see what was happening. Everyone was yelling and stuff was falling and hit a few of the cars next to us.

FINNSTROM: And firefighters dangling out of windows more than 30 floors above the ground.

ED CAGALO, CLARK CO FIRE DEPT: Our firefighters had to hang out the windows to try and cut the fire off or we directed our fire streams at an angle where we could make contact with the fires.

FINNSTROM: Flames charred the exterior of the top four or five floors of the Monte Carlo causing some frantic moments as everyone evacuated from the 3,000 plus rooms.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The alarm went off and then I heard a bunch of wrestling out in the hallway. Got out and the lady said, hey, you need to go down the fire escape. I went to the end of the hall. I was almost down there and looked down the window and I thought, there's nothing going on, but I could smell smoke and so I hustled down the stairway like everybody else and got out and turned the corner and looked up and the whole building was on fire.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were asking what the alarm was for and we opened up the curtains and all of the sudden, I see this shoe, this burnt shoe fall down to the ground and we look out and there is smoke everywhere and the fire department is coming. So, I took my kids, I dropped our stuff and we hauled down the stairs, with the stroller, the kids, everything and now everything's on fire. I don't think I'm getting married tomorrow.

FINNSTROM: Lots of big plans may have been put on hold, but fire officials say everyone was able to get out safely. There were some minor cases of smoke inhalation. Within about an hour, firefighters armed with special equipment for high rise firefighting, extra hoses and webbing to anchor them to the windows, put the fire out.

(on camera): And there are two big questions that remain. One is, when will this hotel and casino reopen? Fire officials have said that almost all of the damage is to the exterior of the building and those top few floors. So, they say the casino may actually reopen first. But, we've been given no timetable on when that may happen. The other big question is, what caused this fire? We do know that there were welders on top of the roof at the time it broke out. But fire investigators have said that the cause remains very much under investigation.

Kara Finnstrom for CNN, Las Vegas, Nevada.


WHITFIELD: Well, figuring out the financial mess in the real world is tough enough. Well now, people seeking an escape to the virtual fantasy world of Second Life are getting a dose of financial reality. The online game shut down its banking institutions this week. These pretend banks were funded with real money from Second Life's registered users and there are some 12 million of them. The banks were run by other users and promised return on investment. Some paid, some didn't and that's why the plug was pulled on the fantasy banks.

Well, if you are not familiar with the online social community, Second Life, here is your chance to see it in action. Miles O'Brien was dispatched from our CNN Second Life newsroom to meet up with a band looking for real life fame in Second Life.


When I was eight, I started playing key boards.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Some 20 years later, musician and performer, Tania Smith is leading a double life. In the virtual world of Second Life, an online community, she goes by the name of Shakti (ph) and the band is "Space Junkie." D\dispatched from CNN's bureau in Second Life, I dressed up my avatar and flew in to watch.

The music is prerecorded, but I the dancing and other is live. Shakti sits at her computer, manipulating her avatar as do the other members of the band. We met for an interview before the show.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Who had the idea to do the "Second Life?"

TANIA SMITH, "SHAQTI": This idea came to be because we live on three continents.

O'BRIEN (voice over): Shakti lives in the us, guitarist Dan Harris, aka Zaphod, is from Australia and the drummer Luke Mason, manipulates his avatar Zavier, from Malaysia. For them, Second Life is an entre into the real world, a way to promote their music.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Do you have Second Life groupies?

SMITH: Yes, we do.

O'BRIEN (voice over): About three times a week, "SpaceJunky" performs at various venues in Second Live, they get paid but in Lindens, the Second Life currency. Clearly these e-games are really more about marketing.

O'BRIEN (on camera): The ultimate goal is to be a hit in the real world?

SMITH: Absolutely. In fact, we actually really want to be the first band in space.

O'BRIEN (voice over): Hard to say if this gig will get them there. But, this is one band that has found a whole new orbit of fans in cyberspace.

Miles O'Brien, CNN, New York.


WHITFIELD: That's a whole new world. Well, SpaceJunky and CNN avatars will be hosting a special in-world event this afternoon, in fact. Go to the iReport hub in Second Life. CNN i-Report hub in Second Life at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. The band's lead singer will take questions form the audience.

CNN i-Report staff will also be on hand to talk about news report production techniques and how musicians use Second Life to show their talents.

Wow, out of this world.

All right, well, tensions continue along the border with Gaza. We'll get a live update


WHITFIELD: We continue to monitor news of an American woman kidnapped in Afghanistan. An Afghan interior ministry spokesman says gunmen grabbed the aide workers from her car on the outskirts of Kandahar. The minister says police are trying to find the woman. The State Department says it is aware of the kidnapping, but has no details.

Reports today from the Egyptian border of Gaza that nearly 40 Egyptian security personnel have been injured. Egyptian forces are trying to clamp down on Palestinians streaming back and forth across the border. And Egypt's government is offering to host talks to resolve the border chaos. Middle East correspondent, Aneesh Raman joins us by phone from Al Arish, Egypt.

And so, Aneesh, bring us up-to-date.

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Fredricka, not much hope that those talks will come to fruition. We've heard from the president of the Palestinian authority in the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas said it is unlikely. Egypt really doesn't have the clout to bring Fatah and Hamas together.

But, what I saw today, and I went up to where that wall came tumbling down on Wednesday, was an area void really, of any control or any security. Thousands upon thousands of Gazans continue to pour into Egypt. And today, Fredrick, another element, Palestinian cars, there were taxis, flatbed trucks, it was pure gridlock as people made their way across the border.

The Egyptian troops simply are outnumbered at the border, and try as they might, they cannot stop this flow. But the Egyptian president is in a very difficult bind. On one hand, there is great empathy in Egypt for the Palestinian cause, for the Palestinian people. It's in part why he has allowed this border to remain open for so long. But, on the other hand, he is not a big fan of Hamas, who control Gaza. He sees them as an Islamist organization, similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, who's his name opposition, here. And he is facing a lot of pressure from the U.S., from Israel, all concerned that the open border could allow weapons to go into Gaza where Hamas controls and does not recognize Israel.

So, the Egyptian president is trying to essentially play both sides. But for the moment, we are not seeing much control at the border. Instead, Fredricka, they are trying to essentially tighten the noose and push the Palestinians back from further inland, from where I am, right now. They have told all the shops in Al Arish to shut down so Palestinians can't buy supplies. And we are seeing increased roadblocks. So, they haven't gone tolt to the border yet, but clearly the Egyptians are trying some strategy to push from behind.

WHITFIELD: Oh, interesting. So, Aneesh, you mentioned the greatest fear, weapons being trafficed. Now, the area where that wall went down, that clearly is a hugely porous area. Are there several areas along the border, here, that are particularly porous?

RAMAN: It is tough to tell, you know, it took us -- and it's a 15-mile ride or so from Al Arish to Raffa (ph) -- it took us literally three to four hours just to get to that actual border, that one place, the main crossing. It's near impossible to move around. And the only way you could do it despite the cars coming was the old-fashioned way, walking.

So, we didn't have a sense of all the other openings that could be there. We know a number have been sealed, a number of others have been opened. It is a scene really of chaos there at the border, because there aren't enough troops on either side, either Egyptian security forces or Hamas security forces. For the moment, it is a complete free for all. And that is the concern of the international community, but also for Gazans, Fredricka, I got to tell you, they keep on telling me they are tasting freedom. These are a people that since June of last year have been cut off by the international community, increasingly, from basic supplies. And so, for the first time they feel free. They are smiling for the first time in years. And so it is tough to see how, in to see in a humanitarian way, without perhaps sparking violence, you're going to be able to get them to go back in a short period of time - Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: Aneesh Raman in Al Arish, Egypt. Thanks so much.

Well, they tipped off the FBI about a suspected terrorist but when it came time for reward money, a couple of good guys were left holding an empty bag. Justice correspondent, Kelli Arena explains.


KELLY ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): They're good friends, military veterans who worked together at the same flight school in Minnesota. Hugh Sims and Tim Nelson are the men who alerted the FBI about a suspicious student named Zacarias Moussaoui in August of 2001.

HUGH SIMS, FMR PAN AM INSTRUCTOR: I explained to them that we had a student at the Pan Am Flight Academy that I think is asking for training that could become dangerous...

ARENA: In fact, of all the Americans Moussaoui ran into, Nelson and Sims were the only ones known to have called the FBI. In fact, they were recognized by the Senate for their bravery. So, the men were shocked to learn that another flight instructor they worked with was just given a $5 million State Department reward for his help in the Moussaoui case.

TIM NELSON, FMR PAN AM INSTRUCTOR: I was totally dumbfounded.

ARENA: So, just who is $5 million richer? Officials say it's instructor Clancy Prevost.

Prevost also noticed something odd about Moussaoui and asked his bosses to call the FBI, but for him, it ended there until he testified at Moussaoui's trial.

NELSON: Are we paying people to testify or are we paying people to do the right thing? ARENA: Sims and Nelson went much further. They called the FBI themselves bypassing their bosses who were reluctant to turn in a paying customer, risking their jobs and reputation. They got nothing. Prevost could not be reached for comment. The State Department, which awarded Prevost the money privately, would not comment on specifics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The rewards for justice operates on the bases of nominations. And so, a U.S. law enforcement agency would have made a nomination of this individual.

ARENA (on camera): A U.S. Official says it was the FBI that recommended Prevost. He says the bureau considered information about Sims and Nelson, but only nominated Prevost. The FBI wouldn't comment.

Kelli Arena, CNN, Washington.


WHITFIELD: In a few minutes from now, the hour's top story. Plus, African-American women, race, gender and the issues, we'll be looking into it.


WHITFIELD: All right, a quick look at stories happening right now. This mudslide right there caught on tape just south of San Francisco. The soggy earth giving way as storms continue to drench the California coast.

And in France, police are questioning a rogue features (ph) trader. Jerome Curvie (ph) is accused of tapping into a bank's computer and making bad bets with money that wasn't even his. His losses total $7 billion in just one year.

Gender and race playing out today in the South Carolina Democratic primary. Voters right now are deciding the outcome of what's been a pretty bitter race loaded with bickering and sniping. It's a must-win state for Barack Obama, where more than half of all Democrats are black. Obama, the favorite but not necessarily a shoe- in over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

So, for black women who are Democrats, choosing a candidate is especially complicated. Some women we talked to in Atlanta explained why.


WHITFIELD (voice-over): Hillary Clinton's strong support among black women is similar to backing she's getting from females across the board. And that, says Spelman College Associate Professor of Women's Studies Bahati Kuumba, is fueling a debate within the African- American community.

PROF. M. BAHATI KUUMBA, SPELMAN COLLEGE: It does show a gender gap within the black community that's always been there. It's just making it more visible.

WHITFIELD: Kuumba said, if some black women are leaning toward gender over race, it might be partly because of the Civil Rights Movement.

KUUMBA: Black male politics has never sufficiently paid attention to gender politics. And so, on one level, that might be a reaction to the fact that just like -- just as the Civil Rights Movement prioritized race over gender.

WHITFIELD: The author says civil rights leaders, mostly men, put women's issues on the back burner. But Kuumba says the presidential campaign has turned up the heat like never before.

KUUMBA: I think that there's been a concerted effort on the -- in terms of the Hillary Clinton campaign, to focus on women's issues. And that's not usual with respect to mainstream politics.

WHITFIELD: The professor says Clinton's strong appeal to black women is twofold. Her campaign hits hard on health reform.

KUUMBA: Across the board in terms of all classes, African- American women suffer greater from all of the ailments that is possible for women to have and die at earlier ages.

WHITFIELD: The second major reason for Clinton's appeal ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: William Jefferson Clinton.

WHITFIELD: ...her last name.

KUUMBA: If she did not have that, I don't think that we would be having this discussion about her at all. I think she would be just about as popular as Cynthia McKinney is who's running for the Green Party. We would not be talking about her at all.

WHITFIELD: Students on the Spelman campus appear to be just as divided as the rest of black America. Spelman student Markeet Alston (ph) is president and founder of the Young Democrats of Spelman. The group does not endorse candidates, but her personal choice: Hillary Clinton. She says it's about the issues. And Kuumba says that's where the focus of this campaign should be.

KUUMBA: There is a kind of surface level attention to this race/gender dichotomy and not as much attention to the issues, to the political priorities that African-American women have.


WHITFIELD: And today in South Carolina, where black women represent half the black Democratic vote, most say the issues driving them to the polls: education, jobs and health care.

Now, among the Republicans who are campaigning hard in time for Florida's primary, Mike Huckabee, you're looking at live pictures right there, he's kind of waiting in the wings before speaking to the folks there who have turned out to his rally there in Orlando. His counterparts, Mitt Romney and John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are also in Florida all on this weekend before the Florida primary.

We're going to continue to monitor developments there and elsewhere throughout the state of Florida. There he is right there. Oh, we thought for a second he was going to take to the mic. But, maybe momentarily.

Meantime, CNN's "BALLOTT BOWL" is back again this weekend. Our special political coverage gives you the chance to see the candidates unfiltered on the campaign trail. "BALLOT BOWL" kicks off today at 2:00 p.m. Eastern.

And be sure to stay with us for the complete results of today's South Carolina Democratic primary. Join Wolf Blitzer and the best political team on television from the CNN election headquarters in New York. Our special coverage gets underway 6:00 p.m. Eastern.

Let's check in with Reynolds Wolf where weather should not be standing in the way of folks in South Carolina and probably not for Florida later on either.


WHITFIELD: Race, nooses and Jena, Louisiana, back on the national radar. Our legal team walks us through this week's developments. Good to see you guys. A white teen facing hate crime charges. We'll explore it.


WHITFIELD: A Louisiana community in turmoil over a symbol of racial hatred. Now, an 18-year-old man faces federal hate crime charges. He's accused of taunting African-American protesters with a hangman's noose.

Here's CNN's Sean Callebs.


SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Eighteen-year-old Jeremiah Munson was arrested long after the peaceful march in Jena, Louisiana had ended on September 20th. Munson is now charged with federal hate crimes, for tieing makeshift nooses crafted from electrical cords to the back of his truck and repeatedly taunting marchers.

At the time, the community was a racial powder keg. This is what the Alexandria police chief told CNN's David Mattingly when Munson was initially arrested.

CHIEF DARREN COUTEE, ALEXANDRIA, LA. POLICE DEPT.: Obviously, more than a prank than anything else. We think so anyway. But during this kind of an atmosphere, of course, pranks like that don't go over very well. CALLEBS: The chief says now he's pleased the Feds acted. Federal authorities say Munson "conspired to threaten and intimidate African-American marchers."

The Reverend Al Sharpton commended authorities, saying, "I hope this is a signal that the Justice Department will now take the hangman's nooses more seriously. If they had prosecuted the white students that hung the nooses in Jena, we may never have had to raise the national outcry."

He's talking about an incident at Jena High School. Three students hung nooses from a tree, escalating racial tensions that culminated with six black students beating a white student, Justin Barker so severely, he was briefly hospitalized.

The six African-American students were initially charged with attempted murder, though charges were later reduced. The white teens that hung the nooses were not charged, rather punished by school administrators.

That begs the question: why does the full weight of the Justice Department come down on Munson, but not on the students? One simple reason: age. Munson is 18, an adult. The students were juveniles.

Listen to what U.S. attorney Donald Washington told lawmakers back in October.

DONALD WASHINGTON, U.S. ATTORNEY: Although the conduct is deeply disturbing and offensive, we decline to pursue charges after learning that the nooses had been hung by juveniles.

CALLEBS: Washington defends the action of his office, saying it was made in accordance with long-standing policy.

(on camera): Here's a copy of the indictment. It details how Munson tied the nooses to the back of his truck, then allegedly drove by the marchers. Now, he faces not only a hate crime, but also violating the marchers' civil rights. The U.S. attorney in the case says if convicted, Munson faces a year in prison for the hate crime, up to 10 years in prison for violating the marchers' civil rights.

Sean Callebs, CNN, in New Orleans.


WHITFIELD: OK, that's just one of the cases we're talking about today with our legal guys. Avery Friedman is a civil rights attorney and law professor. Good to see you.


WHITFIELD: And Richard Herman is a New York criminal defense attorney and law professor. Good to see you as well.

RICHARD HERMAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Hi, Fred. WHITFIELD: All right, so what's hanging in my mind here after hearing Sean Callebs' remarks that age, the federal prosecutors are saying age is exactly what's holding up the fact that they don't pursue the other juveniles. Since when is age or being a juvenile, Avery, kind of protection against being charged a crime?

FRIEDMAN: Well, it really isn't protection, Fredricka. The fact is that these young people that hung the nooses engaged in a hate crime. However, the jurisdiction is the juvenile court.

The U.S. attorney and the Department of Justice did exactly the right thing here because under federal law, what Munson did or is allegeded to have done, expressly violates the oppression, intimidation, coersion section. And the Department did it exactly right. This is a Justice Department smackdown, and it's the correct thing to do.

HERMAN: Hey, Fred ...

WHITFIELD: Wow. Go ahead, Richard.

HERMAN: Yes, it also goes to intent. You know, here, he's 18- years-old. He is an adult. And you know, you don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't yell fire in a crowded movie and you don't take nooses and surround them around your truck and drive back and forth, back and forth, in front of peaceful black protestors.


HERMAN: You don't do that, Fred. And now, it wasn't enough for him to be charged by the state for inciting a riot and DWI and contributing to the deliquency of a minor. Now, the Feds are in, now he's in the big time, and the big leagues ...


HERMAN: ...and he's facing a 10-year prison term.

FRIEDMAN: And the state ...


FRIEDMAN: ...the state, by the way, characterizes this as a prank. This is no prank, Fredricka. This is serious business. This is exactly what Congress intended in enacting this federal law.

WHITFIELD: Well, can either the state or even the Feds kind of re-evaluate, given that they're getting this kind of reaction from folks who are kind of evaluating whether Munson was charged properly? Can they re-evaluate how they handled the three juveniles who originally hung the nooses at a tree at the school?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think -- I think the bottom line is -- again, the problem is that it's going to wind up in the juvenile court. I think the Justice Department did the right thing. And now, remember, this wasn't a generalized objection. I think the young people that did that should have been charged under juvenile law. They weren't. Again, the discretion of the prosecutor.

WHITFIELD: All right.

FRIEDMAN: But here -- here, what happened is that this kid, this punk, was driving around, people getting ready to go back on a bus, taunting them. This is exactly what the federal law prohibits, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, well, let's talk about the Jose Padilla case. That one was one that was, I guess, in one way, shape or form, kind of settled this week with a sentence of 17 years for plotting and recruiting for al Qaeda. And so, Richard, it seems like this case took forever. Is this a victory for the Feds?

HERMAN: Well, you know, any conviction, Fred, is a victory for the Feds. So, let's say that out front. That's a victory. They won life in prison for him. The judge took into consideration the harsh conditions at Guantanomo, the fact that there were allegations he was beaten and abused and she also took into consideration the fact that there were no violence attributed to him, to any U.S. citizen anywhere in the world or anybodye else.

And based on all of that, she reduced, she did not buy the life in prison argument and she sentenced him to 17 plus years in prison. That's a lot of time, Fred.


WHITFIELD: So Avery, he is going to be used as an example for anyone out there. I mean, the Feds can say, you even think about it, you have any kind of dialogue with anyone who's suspected of taking place in terrorist activity, this could be you.

FRIEDMAN: Well, and it could and U.S. district (ph) Judge Marcia Cooke did exactly the correct thing. Neither a pro-defense, neither pro-government. She was firm, she was fair. He's in his 30s, he won't see the light of day until his 50s. The judge was correct in considering his incarceration for three-and-a-half years in a South Carolina brig. This is exactly the right decision.

In fact, the judge even said, there's no evidence that he intended to engage in a particular act ...


FRIEDMAN: least as far as evidence. The justice system worked in this case.

WHITFIELD: All right, Avery, Richard, thanks so much. Always good to see you guys.

FRIEDMAN: Nice to see you.

WHITFIELD: And it's kind of fun that I get to see you even earlier on our Saturday hour ...

FRIEDMAN: Yes, it's great.

HERMAN: It's great.

WHITFIELD: ...noon hour because of the "BALLOT BOWL."

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely.

WHITFIELD: All right, see you next time.

FRIEDMAN: See you soon.

HERMAN: Take care, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, well, the Screen Actors Guild gets a pass from striking writers. And, it's ready to put on the glitz.


WHITFIELD: All right, Republican presidential candidates are stumping hard in the delegate-rich state of Florida. Mike Huckabee right now, let's listen in from Orlando.


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In fact, I find it almost disturbing that people who represent those in America who have deep faith are now considered almost marginalized, as if they shouldn't really be in the process. It's OK if we go and hammer out some yard signs for some other good person who might run for office but, God help us all, if we would actually want to run ourselves. It's almost as if the word disenfranchised could easily be applied to people of faith.

And I think one of the reasons that you see these behind me, joining with me today, is to say that every citizen, whether one has faith or doesn't, should have a rightful place in the public square to speak openly about what's right and what can be made better.

WHITFIELD: All right, Mike Huckabee there in Orlando, Florida. Other Republicans campaigning in Florida today. Mitt Romney is in Lakeland, Florida. John McCain in Sun City, Florida. And Rudy Giuliani also in Orlando. We'll be checking throughout the day on all of those candidacies. "BALLOT BOWL's" at 2:00 Eastern time. You don't want to miss it.

Meantime, there is some movement aimed at settling the 11-week writers' strike. Writers have inked an interim deal with RKO Pictures, no details have been released, but the Writers Guild says the agreement gives writers fair compensation for work used on the Internet and in other new media. The agreement follows others the Guild has reached with some independent production companies.

Well, the writers' strike took the shine off this year's Golden Globes and threatens to make Oscar a no-show. But the Screen Actors' Guild scored a pass.

Our entertainment correspondent Kareen Wynter reports they're ready to put on the glitz.


KAREEN WYNTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): How times have changed. Hollywood gears up for what could be the biggest award show this season. No, not the Academy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards. You heard right. It's the only show so far to receive a waiver from the Writers' Guild of America, allowing striking writers to pen the show.

GALINA ESPINOZA, SENIOR EDITOR, PEOPLE: They're kind of leading the show this year. I mean, because it's the first real show. We're going to have celebrities, we're going to have the red carpet. What could be better?

Often, the SAG Awards is kind of like a warm-up for the Oscars. But this year, it may end up being the main event. No one knows if the Academy Awards are going to happen. So, we suspect that the celebrities are going to pull out all the stops when they hit that red carpet on Sunday night.

WYNTER: Finally, a star-studded award show with glitz, glamour, and glowing acceptance speeches, the stuff awards season is made of. But this hasn't been your typical year honoring Hollywood's elite. Take the recent Golden Globe Awards.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a different Golden Globes than we're used to watching.

WYNTER: Not so much golden as a glorified news conference, with journalists instead of stars announcing the night's winners. The People's Choice Awards were also a pale echo of previous years.

ESPINOZA: I think the ratings did say it all. The public was not interested in watching an award show without any stars.

WYNTER: Both events were denied waivers from the Writers Guild, which has been on strike since November 5th. The union is at odds with the Producers Alliance over new contract. Likewise, the Oscars, scheduled for the end of February, have yet to receive the green light, meaning fans and famous faces may be forced to endure another strip-down telecast. Although some in Hollywood aren't complaining.

SUSAN SARANDON, ACTRESS: There was a little bit of a collective sigh of not having to get dressed up by some people.

WYNTER: Relief for others will come when writers are writing and television returns to normal.

Kareen Wynter, CNN, Hollywood.


WHITFIELD: Well, they are combat buddies. Man's best friend goes to war next in the NEWSROOM.


WHITFIELD: ...American troops. That's exactly what's going on in parts of Iraq in one of the last places you'd expect to meet up with man's best friend.

CNN's Michael Holmes brings us this story from Tikrit.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Bo (ph) is out for a walk. But she's no ordinary dog and her daily walks aren't ordinary either because you see, Bo is based at Camp Spika (ph) in northern Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A couple of places we've been that had dogs that they adopted, and everybody jsut loves them. I mean, it takes a little edge off, I guess. It makes you feel like you're back at home.

HOLMES: That's the idea. You see, Beau, our more accurately, First Sergeant Bo, 85th Medical Detachment, is a combat stress dog flown in from the U.S. after months of specialist training. And she's good at what she does.

CAPT. JOY BALDWIN, U.S. ARMY: It's almost like she smells out their stress. And if the soldier's very stressed, she will go up to them and calm down her behaviors and just relax in front of them.


HOLMES: Bo's primary job is to be with soldiers clinically stressed, either by problems back home or the things they've seen and experienced on the battlefield. She has a secondary role, though, wandering the base and simply being there for any soldier who passes by.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People love dogs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Regular dogs are just happy to see you. When they just come up, they're just excited to see you. I mean, it makes you feel good inside.

BALDWIN: Dogs have this unique way of not judging people. And instead of being someone that you have to be afraid of what they think about you, you can just kind of relax around a dog and allow them to absorb your stress like a giant sponge.

HOLMES: And it seems to work. First Sergeant Bo provides a few laughs as well when soldiers notice she outranks them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know how she got promoted so fast.

HOLMES: Bo has a partner, Budge (ph), currently based further north in Mosul. Captain Baldwin hopes more dogs will be posted to Iraq and travel to other bases. Judging by the soldiers reaction to Bo, they'll be welcome recruits.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it brought a smile to my face, so. I mean, that was so good.

HOLMES: Michael Holmes, CNN, Tikrit, Iraq.


WHITFIELD: All right, a look at the top stories in a moment. "YOUR MONEY" is next. Here's a preview.


ALI VELSHI, CNN HOST: Coming up next on "YOUR MONEY," I'm Ali Velshi traveling across America in the CNN Election Express Bus. We're asking Americans what they think about the economy and politics. A CNN financial security watch is in effect.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN HOST: What the White House candidates are saying about fixing the economy and the future of your money and ways to protect your savings.

We're ready to get started right now after now in the news.