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Hate in Pennsylvania; Lieberman's Vital Vote; Lost Opportunities Without DNA

Aired December 15, 2009 - 14:00   ET


MELISSA LONG, CNN ANCHOR: Summer nights in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. A Mexican immigrant is jumped and killed. Two white teens are arrested, eventually convicted of misdemeanor assault, and that could have been the end of the story.

Today, a whole new chapter in the form of federal indictments, and not just of Luis Ramirez's attackers, but of three Shenandoah police officers, including the chief of police. The suspects are due in federal court, in fact, this hour.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien joining us live from New York now to help us push this investigation forward.

I know you've actually reported in the past on this case, so bring us up to speed as far as where things stand right now going into the courtroom today.


This was a story that we focused on very heavily in our documentary "Latino in America," and also the book that we did, along with the documentary, also killed "Latino in America." So it's been now 18 months since Luis Ramirez was beaten to death on a street in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

He was an illegal immigrant. His death came at the hands of a group of white teenagers, and it really revealed these boiling tensions between whites and Latinos in Shenandoah, which is a working class coal mining town.

One of the teenagers in the case, a young man named Colin Walsh, pleaded guilty to federal civil rights violations. He was sentenced to four to nine years.

Now, on the stand, he testified that the boys brutally beat Ramirez to death while they were yelling racial and ethnic slurs. And a state jury acquitted two other attackers of all but simple assault. That's all they got, simple assault.

Brandon Piekarsky was one. Derrick Donchak was the other. They were sentenced to a minimum of six to seven months in prison. There was a fourth juvenile who was put under house arrest.

Now, Piekarsky was due out of prison on Christmas Eve, and all of that is now in jeopardy. Piekarsky and Donchak has been, as you said, Melissa, they had been indicted on federal hate crimes violations and obstruction of justice, charges that could carry possible life sentences for both young men.

Three police officers, including the chief of police, will be arraigned shortly in a federal courthouse in Pennsylvania. They are accused of obstructing justice in the Ramirez investigation. The chief and another officer have also been indicted on extortion charges.

Here is a look back at how it all began 18 months ago.


O'BRIEN (voice-over): In July 2008, Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico and father of two, was beaten to death by a group of white teenagers, turning this town into an unlikely flash point in the national debate over immigration and racism.

It all began on this street corner where a middle-of-the-night encounter turned into a melee. Prosecutors say Ramirez was called a spic and other epithets. He was kicked and punched until he was unconscious. Two days later, Ramirez was dead.

Lou Ann Pleva, who grew up in Shenandoah, was horrified.

LOU ANN PLEVA, SHENANDOAH RESIDENT: It was unthinkable, how could kids do this, how could kids who were raised in my hometown do this?

O'BRIEN: Following the attack, four teenagers were arrested. One is on trial in juvenile court. Three others, high school football standouts Derrick Donchak, 19 and Brandon Piekarsky and Colin Walsh both 17 were charged as adults. Donchak was accused of aggravated assault, Piekarsky and Walsh of third-degree murder. All three were charged with ethnic intimidation, a hate crime in Pennsylvania.

All pleaded not guilty, saying Ramirez was an active participant in a street fight that went horribly wrong. Colin Walsh's father, Michael, said last year his son's a good kid.

MICHAEL WALSH, FATHER OF ACCUSED ATTACKER: He has straight A grades. I never had a problem with Colin or I don't believe any of these other boys were in trouble either.

O'BRIEN: State prosecutors later dropped charges against Walsh when he pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights violation. He then testified in court against his friends, saying racial slurs were used in the attack.

An all-white jury of six men and six women convicted Donchak and Piekarsky of simple assault.

FREDERICK FANELLI, DEFENSE ATTORNEY FOR PIEKARSKY: In my mind it was the lack of evidence to tie these kids to these serious charges that they brought.

O'BRIEN: The prosecutor accepted the verdict. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As the jury has rendered their verdict, and they took a long time and deliberated it, deliberated the case, and we respect their verdict.

O'BRIEN: But the verdict has enraged proponents of Latino rights.

GLADYS LIMON, MEXICAN AMERICAN LEGAL DEFENSE & EDUCATION FUND: In this case, the message is that a person who may not be popular in society based on their national origin or certain characteristic has less value in our society.


O'BRIEN: While many of the townspeople supported the young men, there was an outcry from civil rights leaders, and there was testimony at the trial that the local police had met with the boys at least twice to help get their story straight. One police officer was said to be dating the mother of one of the accused, Brandon Piekarsky.

Now, Shenandoah is a small town, and the local reported that another police officer said -- a lieutenant who reported the scene, had a son who played football with some of the teenagers who were accused. There was an eyewitness who had no links to anybody in the case, a former cop who had retired to Shenandoah.

And she told me many times that she had repeatedly asked for an ambulance for Luis Ramirez. He was pretty much dying right in front of her house, and she said the Shenandoah police were the last to arrive -- other units from other towns were showing up first -- and she said they refused to take her statements, nor would they even search for the boys who had been part of this fight with Luis Ramirez, even though she said she was able to identify all of them. Again, it's a small town.

When we interviewed the police chief, Matthew Nestor, for the book, "Latino in America," he said his police officers responded quickly and he was very proud of the job they did that day. He is now under indictment for obstructing justice in the investigation into Ramirez's beating death, and also for extortion.

LONG: And again, the officers due in federal court in Wilkes- Barre at 2:00 p.m. That is this very hour.

Soledad O'Brien out of New York for us with the latest in this case.

Soledad, thank you.

O'BRIEN: You bet.

LONG: Two convicted killers coming close to getting out of prison on Monday. They were within one hour of freedom, but then the North Carolina appeals court blocked the way for now.

The judge halting the release of the two inmates sentenced to life. That was back in the 1970s when they were sentenced. With some controversial state rules and prison credits, they claimed they had served their time and they were eligible to get out.

The governor fighting to get those credits change and to, of course, keep the inmates locked up. That's his focus.

President Obama meeting with the Senate Democrats today, pushing them to push a health care reform bill. A big variable here is Senator Joe Lieberman. He says he is for reform, he's kind of praising the bill, but you can count him as a nay vote if the public option or if that new Medicare buy-in happened to be in the mix.

To find out a little bit more, we join Congressional Correspondent Brianna Keilar, who's in Washington -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And just -- I want to give you a sense of this meeting that is going on behind closed doors at the White House right now. This is really the first time, Melissa, that all of the Senate Democrats, 58 of them, as well as the two Independents who normally fall in line with the Democrats on domestic issues, they are all at the White House meeting with President Obama.

Make no mistake about the symbolism here. They are on his turf, not on theirs. This is the first time all of them have gone to the White House to meet with him.

And also, you know, I talked with a number of Democrat sources who really expect to get a do-or-die speech from President Obama today, telling them, you have to deliver something to me before Christmas, and essentially saying that the entire health care reform effort here is at stake. As you know, if this moves into the election year, things get a whole lot tougher.

This not going to be as President Obama has described some of his past meetings with Democrats, that pep talk. And this meeting comes on the heels of really quite a setback for Senate Democratic leaders dealing with Senator Joe Lieberman.

You know, initially in the Senate, they hoped to have that government-run insurance plan, that public option. It was clear they weren't going to get the votes on that, including from some of their own Democrats.

And so they moved towards what they thought might be more likely to go through the Senate, that idea of a Medicare buy-in, allowing uninsured folks between the ages of 55 and 64 to buy into Medicare. But Senator Lieberman said, "I will not vote for this." And because of that, it seems pretty obvious at this point that Senate Democratic leaders are going to have to drop that idea and just be happy with pushing a health care bill, even if it doesn't include a public option or this watered-down version, which would be that Medicare buy-in -- Melissa.

LONG: Brianna Keilar, live for us from Washington. Brianna, thank you so much.

Focusing on health care and focusing on DNA. All too often the DNA is MIA. And violent crimes that could have been prevented simply aren't.


LONG: For officers who need to link suspects with crimes, for lawyers who need to clear innocent defendants or innocent inmates, DNA is a godsend. But it can't do anything if it isn't collected, if it isn't preserved and analyzed.

The Associated Press has been reporting that tens of thousands of DNA samples are missing from state databanks all over the country. Either they've been lost or actually never taken in the first place. And far too many of the samples that do exist are just sitting in labs, waiting months, maybe even waiting years to be tested. And then the crimes go unsolved, criminals go unchecked and unpunished.

That was the very subject of a hearing today by the Senate Judiciary Committee. I want you to hear what the senators heard from a rape victims' advocate, a victim herself, about the dangers of these DNA backlogs.


DEBBIE SMITH, RAPE VICTIMS' ADVOCATE: There is a very good chance that this vital evidence will sit on a shelf with thousands of other kits. Each box holds within it vital evidence that is crucial to the safety of women everywhere.

Statistics prove that the average rapist will rape eight to 12 times before he is caught. How many of these rapes could be prevented?

I merely existed for six and a half years waiting for my rapist to be identified, trying my best to deafen the sound of his voice in my ears. But fear for my family and myself held my heart and soul within its grip.

I became suicidal, seeking peace and rest from the pictures that played in my mind constantly. But finally, DNA revealed the identity of my rapist, giving me the sweet breath of validation and promised justice.

I want every victim of sexual assault to experience this gift of renewed life, and I am here today on behalf of those thousands of victims.


LONG: One victim's story. A couple of other cases in point.

Walter Ellis (ph) should have given a DNA sample when he was locked up in Wisconsin years ago. Instead, he got another inmate to give a sample for him so police couldn't link him to a murder in 2003. And Ellis (ph) allegedly went on killing. He's now finally in custody, implicated by DNA from his toothbrush.

Then, in Ohio, Robert Patten (ph), Jr., allegedly committed 37 rapes over a decade and a half. He submitted DNA in 2001, but it didn't find its way to the Ohio databank for three years. He's now serving a prison term, a 68-year prison term.

We want you to meet our guest this hour, Susan Smith Howley, a public policy director for the National Center for Victims of Crime. She has, in fact, testified at today's hearing, this morning Washington, on DNA evidence. And also, Chip Harding, sheriff of Albermarle County, Virginia.

Both know simply all too well the high cost of these missed opportunities when it comes to DNA.

Thank you so much for your time.

And first let me ask you, Susan, since you were there this morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee, do you think any real progress came from the testimony, came from the hearing? And, if so, what kind of progress?

SUSAN SMITH HOWLEY, NATIONAL CENTER FOR VICTIMS OF CRIME: I do think there was progress made. The hearing provided an opportunity for the senators on the Judiciary Committee to really explore some of the barriers that are keeping important rape kit evidence from making it to the crime labs and then solving these crimes. They had an opportunity to discuss the various issues with rape victims, lab directors, and prosecutors, as well as myself, to find out, really, what can we do to fix the problem and get more of this evidence analyzed and back out to the prosecutors so we can put the right people behind bars?

LONG: Chip, I know you created a foundation, Citizens for DNA, as far back as 1997. Tell me about some of these barriers. What is the problem?

SHERIFF CHIP HARDING, ALBERMARLE, COUNTY, VIRGINIA: Well, back in 1998, we discovered there were 160,000 samples, blood samples, sitting in refrigerators in the Department of Forensics here in Virginia, and the money had never been appropriated. So our citizens group lobbied the general assembly and $11 million was appropriated.

And once those profiles actually went into the databank, we went to having two to three hits a year in Virginia to two to three hits a day. So funding is an issue.

And then we found missing samples. I was working on a serial rape case two years ago, and we were getting persons of interest as suspects in the case. And I knew they were convicted felons, but they weren't in the databank and the law said they should have been.

So I worked with some members of the general assembly, and we hopefully have got that plugged up. But there were, in my estimate, between 30,000 and 40,000 people that hadn't given samples that should have.

LONG: Chip, let's go back to the funding issue, of course, because the economy -- and with the economy the way it is right now and budgets very tight, how much money are we talking when we look at a rape kit? Because you would think with technology, that the costs would be coming down.

HARDING: It is coming down. Back in '98, it cost an average of $50 a sample to take a direct sample. And we don't do blood samples anymore, just a buckle (ph) swab. You just take a Q-tip inside the cheek, and it's gotten down to around $20 a sample, I'm told, for a direct sample from a suspect to get it profiled and into a databank. It's really no excuse, and I don't think the General public understands the gravity of it, and how underutilized we're using DNA.


Susan, you're saying you think there was some real progress today. When you look at the funding issue and you look at the costs for these rape kits, what do you propose to solve this problem, to solve this enormous backlog that seems to exist?

HOWLEY: Well, I think two things that we have discovered. As we prepared for this hearing, and then again today, we realized that too many local law enforcement officers still do not understand the investigative power of DNA.

We know that around the country, too many samples from stranger rape cases have not been forwarded for analysis because, law enforcement says, there is no suspect. Well, that's exactly why we should be analyzing these cases. Another solution that we have come to realize is we need greater public awareness that rape victims have the right to a free forensic exam at the hospital whether or not they have made the decision to report the crime.

LONG: And, of course, this isn't just about rape cases. This is so much larger when you look at the picture as well about DNA in general.

HOWLEY: That's definitely true. You know, at our organization, we represent not only sexual assault victims, but victims of burglary, homicide survivors whose cases are still open, families with missing loved ones. And we know that there are unidentified decedents all over the country. Those samples need to be tested, processed and gotten into the database.

LONG: Chip, just quickly, wrapping up, we have talked about the problems, we've talked about some of the financial issues and the difficulties that have been created, but for going forward, what can we do to speed this up and get all these samples that are just sitting there on the shelves actually through the system?

HARDING: Well, I think it is an awareness issue, and I think each state, you need to take interest wherever you live in the United States and look and see what your state is doing, and work with your legislative body to fix this. And it's not just about putting guilty people in jail. The Innocence Project has freed 246 people, 17 on death row, mostly through DNA.

And we know today we have got innocent people sitting in jail that shouldn't be there and guilty people walking around raping our women, abducting our children, and it's no need for a lot of this if we utilize the DNA.

LONG: Chip and Susan, I've got to wrap up this conversation. Thank you so much for your time and perspective. We do appreciate it.

HARDING: Thank you.

HOWLEY: Thank you.

LONG: Thank you.

Boeing's Dreamliner wheels up last hour after one of the longest flight delays ever. This is the next generation jet that has taken off from its first test flight two and a half years later.

They had construction delays, structural problems, other glitches, grounding the 787. Boeing has high hopes that this plan will revolutionize the industry. Instead of the normal aluminum, it's actually made of lightweight composite material, plastics. It makes it much more fuel-efficient and much more attractive for the airlines.

Returning from war with deep emotional and deep physical scars as well. How do you possibly cope? One veteran is getting the help he needs thanks to his four-legged friend.


LONG: Want to make sure you are aware of this recall, massive recall, 50 million Roman-style shades and blinds.

As a demonstration they are graphically showing, it's aimed at protecting children. Five kids were found strangled in the cords. The government says it has reports of another dozen very close calls.

Gay rights supporters in Washington stand on the brink of history. D.C. City Council is expected to make their final vote today legalizing same-sex marriages. The mayor, Adrian Fenty, says he will sign the measure into law. Opponents vow to continue their fight.

And an atheist is testing the faith of the U.S. legal system, repeatedly trying to remove references to God from the public arena. This time, Michael Noonnan (ph) is appealing a previous ruling that kept God in the presidential oath, but he also tried to bar the court hearing his case from saying, "God save the United States and this honorable court." That motion failed.

On any given day some five million people in the U.S. suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. An estimated 300,000 veterans of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan are among them. One is a mailman who lives in Colorado Springs who has some help now thanks to a special doggie.

Jessica Michaels of our CNN affiliate KOAA TV explains.


JESSICA MICHAELS, REPORTER, KOAA TV (voice-over): Iraq War veteran Paul Gernert delivers mail in Colorado Springs. But it isn't always easy for him.

PAUL GERNERT, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: Nervousness, irritability, hypervigilance was by biggest problem.

MICHAELS: Paul suffers from PTSD, a condition that was getting steadily worse since he left the military six years ago -- until he met Bertha.

GERNERT: She's truly a gift.

MICHAELS: Bertha is a service dog...

GERNERT: Bertha, come.

MICHAELS: ... trained to alert Paul when a stranger is approaching, watch his back, and even block an unwanted visitor. She is the first service dog in the country to accompany a postal carrier on his route.

GERNERT: I can do my job without her. I'm a lot more stressed. People sneak up behind me, ask questions. Never anyone hostile, but she won't let that happen.

MICHAELS: Paul found Bertha through a program called Dog Tags, an initiative of the nonprofit organization Puppies Behind Bars. The program trains inmates to raise puppies to become service dogs. The dogs are then given completely free of charge to those who have served our country.

GERNERT: This a major step for veterans in a whole. I believe that. I would really love for more veterans to know about Puppies Behind Bars. These dogs are life-changing. She is definitely a one of a kind, and now she's got a one-of-a-kind job.


LONG: And changing his life right there.

Now, training a service dog takes a considerable amount of time, so the Dog Tags program really only places about 15 to 20 of them with veterans every year.

Now, adult content on teens' cell phones. We're going to find out how many kids admit to sexting on their cells, who is likely more to do it, and why.


LONG: Hello, once again. We are giving some context to sexting. A new report out from the Pew Center looks at teens' text messaging habits. Here's what they found.

Four percent of kids 12 to 17 with cell phones admit they have sent out naked or nearly naked pictures of themselves. Fifteen percent say they have received them.

Among some of the older teens, those numbers actually double. Eight percent have sent these provocative pictures, 30 percent have received them.

To talk about this a little bit more, Amanda Lenhart. She helped to compile these sexting statistics. She is a senior researcher with the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Thank you so much for your time.

So, now that we have outlined exactly what sexting is, maybe we should help people understand why people would want to do this. What are some of the scenarios that you learned about with your phone surveys and also with some of the focus groups you had?

AMANDA LENHART, SR. RESEARCHER, PEW INTERNET AND AMERICAN LIFE PROJECT: Well, certainly in our focus groups, teens told us about three different scenarios under which they would send sexts to other people.

So, the first scenario is when they would send it between two romantic partners, we're dating, we're together, we send those images and they don't leave that partnership.

The second scenario is when romantic partners send them to each other but then the images sort of jump ship and they leave the relationship when one partner shares them generally with friends.

The third is when teens aren't actually in a relationship yet, though one person would like to be. And they use these images as kind of a relationship currency. They send them back and forth to say, hey, I'm interested, I want to be involve in a relationship with you.

LONG: So a relationship currency, and a sort of power that may exist between these young people?

LENHART: Certainly. And we heard that sometimes that power is not always equal. So some girls told us in the focus group they felt pressured to send the images to young men when they asked for them, either boyfriends or people that they were interested in, and they felt like they would not be able to continue the relationships unless they sent these images.

LONG: So a new peer pressure that kids have to deal with these days. And the young girls, the young boys you talked to -- I know you talked to middle-school kids and then you talked to some of the older kids.

Do you see a different kind of sexting that's going on when you look at the different age groups?

LENHART: Well, certainly we see much more of this going on with the older teens. And part of that's because older teens are more likely to have phones themselves, and they're more likely to have had them for longer period of time. Plus, these teens are more likely to be involved in more sophisticate and more romantic relationships than younger teens. So it makes sense that they would be more likely to have experienced these.

LONG: OK. Well, they may see this as a way of socializing, engaging in this sexting. But do they understand the potential long- term ramifications, that they could, in fact, be prosecuted if they're sending these? And this could stay on their record. Do they get that?

Does it encourage them to take a moment and consider not sending it?

LENHART: Well, we really heard kind of a mix in the groups. Some kids were very aware of these prosecutions and aware of the questionable legality of sending these images. Other teens felt like, you know what, it's not a big deal. I think this is fun. Other teens felt like, you know what, this is something I do with my girlfriend or boyfriend and this is nobody else's business and this shouldn't be an issue because it is between us.

LONG: Nobody's business if it's just between the two. But, of course, if the relationship ends, as you pointed out, sometimes it does continue to exist and get sent elsewhere.

Moms and dads, I know you also had the chance to talk to them. Do they seem surprised by what's going on? And what can moms and dads do since some of them may be even paying the bills for the cell phones?

LENHART: Well, certainly we did find out that if the teens themselves are paying for their own cell phone bills, that they are more likely to engage in this kind of behavior. Another thing that we heard is --

LONG: I think we are having some audio difficulties with Amanda Lenhart. But again, that is Amanda joining us live on the line right there. She is a researcher with the Pugh Internet and American Life Project, helping us better understand sexting that seems to be growing in prevalence among middle school kids and high school kids. This is some new research that was conducted and just released today after a phone survey of middle school and high school kids, and also some focus groups that the Pugh Research Center did in conjunction with the University of Michigan.

Thank you for your perspective and your time. Again, Amanda Lenhart.

Well, yesterday, we looked at the fatal fight in Chicago that shocked so many. Today, why teens fight. Here's part two of T.J. Holmes' special series for "AMERICAN MORNING. " (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOLMES (on camera): How many in this group, and you can give me a show of hands if you want to, how many of you all have been in the past year, have been in a fight, physical altercation of some kind? All five of you in the past year have been in a fight of some kind.

HOLMES (voice-over): For these Chicago teens, fighting is a way of life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like that every day at school. There is not a day you don't see somebody bumping someone and not getting into an argument over petty stuff.

HOLMES: Not an accidental bump, but a move meant to intimidate.

HOLMES (on camera): Why is it so important to be big man on campus?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you are a big guy, you try to keep that reputation. So if somebody bump you, you will automatically say something to them, because you are going to feel like you just got treated like a punk.

HOLMES: Has anything gotten more serious?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Once I got jumped, I was by myself, and I found myself fighting 15 girls. And then they said "We will spare your life today" and that scared me.

HOLMES (voice-over): What these Chicago teens tell us is not unusual. In fact, nearly 40 percent of Chicago public school students were involved in a physical fight.

LILA LEFF, FOUNDER, UMOJA STUDENT DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION: High school is about young people scrambling for power and influence.

HOLMES: Lila Leff leads a program that in part tries to stem teen violence. She says kids are vying for power and prestige everywhere.

LEFF: In some high schools, the currency is how much money your parents makes, or what car you're going to drive when you're 16, or what college are you going to get into because you're taking five AP classes. And in some cases the currency is your representation.

HOLMES: Because for many of these teens, a representation is all you have -- 85 percent of the Chicago students live below the poverty line. Gangs, guns, and drugs are all too common in poor neighborhoods.

HOLMES (on camera): Have you all witnessed some kind of violence, shootings?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I've seen my brother.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It happens every day and mostly over petty stuff.

HOLMES (voice-over): For these teens, the daily threat of violence is all too real.

HOLMES (on camera): You all have to carry -- you carry stuff around when you are outside?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Of course. If you don't carry --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You might as well lay down, and dig your grave yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What don't carry?

HOLMES: What do you carry?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I carry a taser and mace.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I carry a mace, box cutters, and scissors.

HOLMES (voice-over): These teens have developed a tough exterior in order to survive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If I told my mom I got into an argument with a girl, "you didn't fight her? Get your scared self out of my face, then.

HOLMES: An attitude youth violence expert Dr. Karl Bell says is no surprise.

DR. CARL BELL, PSYCHIATRIST: The parents are scared something will happen to the kid, and that fear turns into anger and the anger gets transferred to the kid, and the kid is told defend yourself, because if you are a punk, people are going to try you.

Less' program (INAUDIBLE) tries to change that thinking. Teaching students leadership skills to help resolve conflicts without fighting. These give teens say it's helping them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I learned how to control myself.

Amber was suspended 15 times for getting into fights during her freshman year. Now a junior she says she's worked hard to keep trouble at bay.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So I start looking at a lot of situations different, I started looking at a lot of fights different, like when people come to me, I'm like, while we're arguing I'll be thinking in my mind, like, OK, it's not really worth it. You're going to get 10 days out of school. And it's not even worth it.


LONG: Another new development that is affecting millions of American children everyday, or every day they go to school. We've been telling you about the federal government's standards for the meat it buys for public school lunches. It seems those standards are far below those of several fast food chains, though they're above those standards for supermarkets. Well, now there's a U.S. Senator, that's Democrat Kristen Gillibrand from the state of New York. She is calling for a strict testing program on par with Jack-in-the-Box and Costco. The Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack has promised a review, but has not committed to any changes yet.

You have probably heard of the Serengeti, Kruger National Park, just two of the famous wildlife areas in Africa. But now a new name could be named to the list. Southern Sudan. Against all odds animals there survived a long civil war, but now they're facing a new threat.

CNN's David McKenzie explains.


DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Paul Elkan prepares for a wildlife survey, it takes a bit of effort. First, he takes the doors off.


MCKENZIE: As the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Southern Sudan, Paul spends a lot of time flying Betty, his Cessna 206.

ELKAN: A group of collared elephants out here.

MCKENZIE: Today, we're looking for elephants. Just a few years ago scientists said it was impossible that elephants could survive Sudan's long civil war. Soldiers on both sides killed them for meat and ivory. But the scientists were wrong. Less than 50 miles outside of southern Sudan's capital, we spot this small herd. These are the first TV images of wild elephants in Sudan, against all odds, several thousand survived the conflict, escaping tanks and guns and disappearing in the vast expanses of the bush. Elkan will never forget the moment he and his colleagues rediscovered the elephants.

ELKAN: We were ecstatic, moved really. Surprising people have been saying that the elephants are finished in southern Sudan, so initially it's just people cheering, yelling, everybody in the plane, a bunch of scientists normally very focused people, everybody just whooping and hollering, can you believe there's elephants here?

MCKENZIE: And it's not just elephants. Southern Sudan boasts the largest savannah in Africa. Immense freshwater wetlands, soaring plateaus and a million strong antelope migration that survived the war.

But many animals did not. (on camera): Thirty years ago, this area was thickly populated with wildlife at the time they found 30,000 zebra and now they've counted only seven.

(voice-over): In peace, they face an even bigger threat. Nomadic tribes are pushing into the wildlife zones bringing in their cattle and their weapons. In the past they used bows and arrows to hunt, now they have AK-47s. They also have competitors for the land. Investors eager to tap into the oil and mineral deposits in the wildlife zones.

To protect those zones, the soldiers and militias who killed wildlife during the war are being turned into rangers tasked with protecting the land and stopping poachers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, how are you doing?

MCKENZIE: But they're usually outmanned and outgunned. These are some of to poorest people in the world, and protecting wildlife comes a distant second to survival.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I have a question for you says (INAUDIBLE). You say we must not kill the wildlife because otherwise they'll be finished. Now I have to slaughter one of my cows. So in a few years, I'll have no cow. So you want me to kill all of cows and have nothing?

MCKENZIE: Conservationists say that without the wildlife they will have nothing.

ELKAN: They will be much more poor if they don't have a wildlife resource base. The poorest people in the world are those who live in an environmentally degraded places.

MCKENZIE: In southern Sudan they have a chance to save one of Africa's true wildernesses and its animals. But this could also become a paradise lost.

David McKenzie, CNN, (INAUDIBLE), Sudan.


LONG: I want to make sure you're aware of the big stories developing on this Tuesday. President Obama is holding a high level meeting with Senate Democrats at the White House today. He's pressing them to reach an agreement on a new health care reform bill by the end of the year. But Independent senator of Connecticut Joe Lieberman could be an obstacle. He opposes a provision to expand Medicare.

Two teens and three Shenandoah police officers are now indicted on hate crimes and other charges on a fatal attack on a Latino man in that state of Pennsylvania. The teenagers are accused of beating Luis Ramirez last year. The officers, including the chief, are accused of obstructing justice by tampering with witnesses and lying to the FBI.

An Illinois prison in the little town of Thompson could soon become home to terror suspects. President Obama ordered Uncle Sam to acquire the underused Thompson Correctional Center and turn it into a super-max prison. Once it meets the standards it will house 100 detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

This story just into the CNN NEWSOOM. An update on a story we mentioned a moment ago. The D.C. City Council has voted to allow gay couples of marry. The Mayor Adrian Fenty has promised to sign the bill. Opponents, of course, vow to continue their fight.

Fixing leaky windows, modernizing the heaters at home, replacing old air conditioners. I know you have a long to-do list. Guess what, President Obama has one for you, as well.


LONG: In our Energy Fix today, we talk about what the president is pushing for. New federal rebate plan now known as Cash for Caulkers.

Stephanie Elam has our Energy Fix from the news room in New York. And let's start with a little bit more about what this program will look like. And it has a good ring for it, Cash for Caulkers. Sounds very familiar.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, right, exactly. It does have a nice little alliteration for us, Melissa, that's true. We're talking about financial incentives to retrofit homes for energy efficiency.

There are already similar plans in place across the country funded by local or state governments. For example, take the town of Babylon on Long Island, New York. In June, we visited Babylon to see what's happening there. There the town provided funds to hire local contractors and energy auditors. It also gave loans for upgrades such as installing new insulation, which the President actually called "sexy" today, as well as replacing old furnaces with new Energy Star ones. A homeowners pays back the town over 10 years. The idea is that homeowners will save enough money on energy over time to cover the costs.

Now, one of the energy auditors of Babylon said, back in June, that the program has increased his business tenfold. Today he told us he now expects it to go 2010, as the program expands to seven neighboring towns on Long Island. He audited 100 homes this year and expects to do 300 to 400 next year. He's also planning to hire eight more workers that will nearly triple the size of his company.

Now, the only problem he says is that small businesses loans are nearly impossible to get, Melissa.

LONG: Right. But it's obviously benefiting his business, the local contractor singing the praises of this. What about the homeowners though? Is there any expectation that they're really going to be able to take advantage of this? ELAM: Yes, well, no doubt. If you're struggling to pay the mortgage, then obviously you don't have money to make these improvements. That's a given. And in Babylon, over 300 homes have been retrofitted to date with -- that's about 10 percent of all of the town's homes at this point.

Now, this morning, we went out and asked people if they're take advantage of the national program and if they would if there is one.

Here's what they had to say.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it is a great incentive to save energy. I think it makes our homes smarter. I think it helps the consumer save money and I think it's a great use of government funds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that our debt level is high enough now in the country that we don't need to take on any additional debt.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If they would have given me the money for it, sure, but I can't afford it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As always, those who can will take advantage of the programs that are out there. Those who can't won't be able to.

ELAM: So, of course, if you want to read more about this and the whole idea of taking a look at get some Cash for Caulking, then you can head over to to read more about the story -- Melissa.

LONG: All right. Steph, thanks so much.

Sometimes it's just about having all the hands to actually get a lot of work done around the house. The next story is about having eight arms. Might help you to get work done. But we're not talking about your arms. We're talking about taking you under the sea. We'll show you an octopus that may in fact be the genius of the ocean.


LONG: The next story's kind of quirky. The octopus is known for the eight arms. But perhaps it's time to start recognizing its brain power. In the past we've seen how these creatures can open jars when they're searching for food. Now we have proof that they have some other useful skills, as well.

James Bennett from Australia's ABC News reports and he takes you under the sea to do so.


JAMES BENNETT, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mark Norman and Julian Finn hadn't intended to study the veined octopus, but quickly realized the animal's unique behavior was a story with legs.

DR. JULIAN FINN, RESEARCH BIOLOGIST: We were actually in Indonesia in (INAUDIBLE) looking for mimic octopus when we chanced across this octopus, which is know as a vein octopus doing amazing behavior, to carrying coconut shells for later uses as armor.

BENNETT: Until this footage was taken, no octopus had ever been documented preparing its defenses against potential attackers in advance.

DR. MARK NORMAN, HEAD OF SCIENCE, MUSEUM VICTORIA: This is an octopus that runs around, collecting cups, stacking them, running along them with them underneath their body and then assembling them as perfect in a armor if a predator comes along. So, it's a planned future use.

BENNETT: While octopus' have been trained to complete tasks, like opening a jar, the scientists argue this use of a tool proves they're far smarter than previously thought.

NORMAN: Using tools, something we think is very special about humans, exists in other animal groups that we've never considered before. A low-life form, a relative to the snail, these octopuses are not simple animals.

BENNETT: The Museum Victoria scientists spent more than 500 hours in the water observing and filming the creature's habits. They think the octopus probably started using clam shells before switching to coconut discarded by humans. Their work is being published in the journal, "Current Biology."

James Bennett, ABC News, Melbourne.


LONG: Now, the ultimate war plan for Afghanistan. Winning the hearts, winning the minds of the people. Are we making progress? Are we getting anywhere? We will go straight to the source for you.


LONG: How much do you know about Afghanistan's Helmand Province? The make or break terrain in the battle against the Taliban. It is also home to a battle for the hearts and the minds of the Afghan people. You may wondering, are we winning anybody over?

CNN's Atia Abawi finds out.


ATIA ABAWI, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Recess, something that didn't happen here for more than 30 years. This school was built in the 1970s, but for three decades it wasn't used for education. Up until six months ago, it stored opium, poppies and drugs for the drug barons. Today, children in (INAUDIBLE), well, at least the boys, are getting an education.

HABIBULLAH, TEACHER (through translator): I told the kids, how long do you want to be farmers, Habibullah says? You need to pick up a pen. A Kalashnikov will not take the place of a pen. It's pen and paper that will make you rise. ABAWI: But it was weapons and rockets that these villagers witnessed in the summer when another battle began and they were caught in the middle.

(on camera): In July of 2009, the Marines took (INAUDIBLE) district and this bazaar back from the Taliban. On that day and all of the stores were closed and the Afghans were skeptical. Six months later, at least 50 percent of the stores are open, and although the Afghans are more receptive, there is still skepticism.

(voice-over): The mistrust lies in the fact that the coalition forces were here years before, but had to leave because the lack of forces to hold the area. The Taliban flooded back and took control for the next three years, punishing those who had sided with the foreign forces.

MASSOUD RASSOULI, DISTRICT GOVERNOR (through translator): Now the people believe that the coalition will not leave them and they are here to say, Governor Massoud says. If they think the Americans will leave, they will stop supporting them because they know the Taliban will come back and harass them.

And although President Barack Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan focuses on winning over the people, these Marines and soldiers have already been hard at work, doing just that. Leaving the relative comfort and safety of their bases to experience the sometimes unforgiving land. And engaging the villagers who say winning their support is very simple.

RAHMATULLAH, LOCAL VILLAGER (through translator): We hear from the U.S. all of the time that they don't want to kill the civilians, Rahmatullah says. If they put that into action everybody will be happy with them.

ABAWI: Last summer's mission was to secure, hold, and build. And (INAUDIBLE) is an example of change. In six months, the Marines have been able to secure and hold. But now, the Afghans wait to see the building efforts promised. And what they fear is abandonment, again.

Atia Abawi, CNN, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.


LONG: It is coming up on lunch time on the West Coast, 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Up next, Rick Sanchez in the NEWSROOM.