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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Teen Receives Probation for Killing Four in DUI Wreck; Mandela Memorial Sign Interpreter Defends Himself; Congress Debates Bipartisan Budget Deal; Bus Companies Face In-Depth Safety Reform

Aired December 12, 2013 - 11:00   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Mixed signals: that sign language interpreter on the right at Nelson Mandela's memorial service, he says he's schizophrenic and that he was hallucinating during the ceremony. You're going to hear from him in just a moment, right here on CNN.

And how about this? Too rich to go to jail? A Texas teenager driving drunk kills four people, and his sentence? No jail time. His lawyers say he was too wealthy to know any better.

And death by hazing. A fraternity initiation goes wrong leaving a young man dead, an police say he suffered major brain trauma, but what happened and could he have been saved?

Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It is Thursday, December 12th. Welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

And we begin with a shocking story out of Texas, a 16-year-old boy dodging a prison sentence after killing four people while driving drunk. A judge gave Ethan Couch, who we see here in this video, only 10 years probation for that crime.

The families of the victims are naturally outraged by the lenient sentence, but the teenager's attorneys say this young man is the victim here, a victim of what they call "affluenza," a kind of rich- kid syndrome. They're blaming his parents for giving him everything and not disciplining him enough.

Our Randi Kaye explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He got drunk, then jumped behind the wheel of his pickup truck and plowed down four people in a drunken haze. So why isn't Ethan Couch behind bars?

Keep in mind, he's just 16, too young to legally drive with any alcohol in his system. And in this case, his blood alcohol measured .24, three times the legal limit in Texas.

Eric Boyles' wife and daughter were both killed.

ERIC BOYLES, WIFE AND DAUGHTER KILLED IN CRASH: We had over 180 years of life taken, future life, not 180 years lived, but 180 years of future life taken, and two of those were my wife and daughter. KAYE: Investigators say surveillance tape shows Couch and his friend stealing beer from a Walmart store in June. Then they got drunk at a party.

Leaving there, police say Couch gunned his pickup, going nearly 70- miles-per-hour in a 40.

Just about 400 yards down the street, he slammed into Hollie and Shelby Boyle, who had stopped to help Breanna Mitchell fix a flat tire. Youth pastor Brian Jennings was driving by and had also stopped to help. All of them were killed.

Ethan Couch was charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter and tried as a juvenile.

In one of the most bizarre defense strategies we've ever heard of, attorneys for Couch blame the boy's parents for his behavior that night, all because of how they raised him.

A psychologist and defense witness testified that the boy suffered from something called "affluenza," a lifestyle where wealth brought privilege and there were no consequences for bad behavior.

He cited one example where Couch, then 15, was caught in a parked pickup with a naked 14-year-old girl, who was passed out. Couch was never punished, according to the psychologist.

He also testified that Couch was allowed to start drinking at a very early age, even drive when he was just 13.

Prosecutors fought for a 20-year sentence, but the defense argued Couch needed treatment, not prison. The judge agreed and gave Couch 10 years probation, plus time in alcohol rehab, no prison.

She told the court she believes Couch can be rehabilitated if he's away from his family and given the right treatment.

He'll likely end up at this pricey rehab center in Newport Beach, California. His father has agreed to pay the half a million dollars or so that it will cost.

SCOTT BROWN, ETHAN COUCH'S DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Taking him away from his family and teaching him to be a responsible citizen, that's a consequence.

KAYE: A consequence for killing four people? Not even close says this woman, whose daughter, Breanna Mitchell, died in the crash.

MARLA MITCHELL, DAUGHTER KILLED IN CRASH: He will be feeling the hand of God, definitely.

He may think he's gotten away with something, but he hasn't gotten away with anything.

KAYE: Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: And as you can plainly see, the victims' families are devastated by that verdict.

Our Anderson Cooper talked with Eric Boyles who you saw. His wife and daughter died in the crash.

Listen to his emotional response to the sentence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOYLES: I was unprepared for the sentence that was delivered. I knew we were talking -- I knew we were in juvenile court. We hoped it would be treated as an adult.

So, we knew there were some restrictions and that -- we knew that even with a 20-year sentence, that he'd be eligible for parole in a couple of years.

And, frankly, you know, I was disappointed. I would have been disappointed even a couple of years eligible for parole.

My request to the court, my request to Ethan was that -- you know, he came from a life of privilege. His -- it's interesting.

One of his psychologists used the term "affluenza," that had just been basically given -- he had been provided anything and everything in life that you could ask for, and that even when presented with difficult circumstances or had been previously in trouble, this "affluenza", money will take care of it, was addressed.

So I, as well as some other victims, expressed that, look, we understand he's a juvenile. We understand rehabilitation has to take place, but let's face it here. There needs to be some justice here.

For 25 weeks, I've been going through a healing process, and so, when the verdict came out, I mean, I -- my immediate reaction is, I'm back to week one, OK? We have accomplished nothing here. This -- my healing process is out the window.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: And where are the victims in all of this process?

I want to bring in our CNN legal analysts, Danny Cevallos and Paul Callan.

And, Danny, I want to begin with you. Everybody's calling this outrageous, and I think that's an understatement at this point.

We just heard that the young man in this case, Ethan Couch, had a blood alcohol content of .24, three hours after the crash, and if you -- we looked into this. It's about -- it's three times the legal limit for adults, and it equals about nine drinks for a 140-pound man. That's about comparable to this person.

And he's a minor. And in Texas, it's a zero-tolerance policy, so all of that, that whole math of drinks is out the window, anyway.

What am I missing here?

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: We have to ask ourselves, why are we outraged?

Are we outraged because he's rich or because he used the defense of "I-was-too-rich" when it comes to leniency? Because he did admit to the crime. He admitted to it. He clearly was driving while intoxicated.

But we are outraged because someone is getting probation after people died.

Now, the juvenile system is designed to treat, rehabilitate and supervise juvenile offenders, so it anticipates that, even for crimes like this, someone could get probation.

So I guess the question I have for everybody out there who's outraged, and I understand, it's a really horrific case. What is it? Is it because he's rich? Is it because that he is simply -- everybody who commits a homicide, DUI, juvenile or not, should go to jail for 20 years?

If that's the rule, then that's what we need to move towards.

But be mindful, Texas already has a very strict sentencing regime for juveniles. I'm astounded that they can end up doing 20 years in an adult facility for something like intoxication manslaughter, which is not a specific-intent crime.

BANFIELD: The unusual circumstance in Texas and some other states is that you would serve your sentence as a juvenile in a juvenile system, and upon reaching the age of 21, you get transferred over to the big- guy jail and you finish the whole thing out over there.

Paul, what about the notion that -- I said it right off the top. Where do the victims stand in all of this?

I get what Danny is saying. I get rehabilitation when you're talk about young people who commit crimes.

But that ignores completely Eric Boyles and the others who lost their loved ones. And what about the message to the rest of society? You can't do this.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You hit it right on the head.

And I think the important thing here is that we're supposed to have a society where rich and poor are treated the same under a justice system.

We have a psychologist who comes into this courtroom and says he suffers from "affluenza," meaning he's got so much money, he doesn't know how to follow the law and act in a moral way.

BANFIELD: No, no. I'm just going to change that.

CALLAN: That's exactly what he was saying.

BANFIELD: That family has so much money, they have not raised him to understand right from wrong.

CALLAN: That's right. That's right.

BANFIELD: They throw money at problems.

CALLAN: So, he's a spoiled rich kid.

BANFIELD: That's not his fault.

CALLAN: I don't care whether it's his fault or not. It's not the fault of the black kid who is raised in a ghetto who commits an armed robbery of a bodega. Maybe that's not his fault either, but you know what? He's going to prison if he does that.

And -- let me just finish my point here. The cure for "affluenza" is poverty inflicted by going to prison, and this kid should be in some dimly lit dungeon for about nine months to learn that money doesn't buy you out of the criminal justice system.

And this judge made a very serious error here in being so lenient, because the message that's sent to the community is, if you have money and if you have the ability to get a good lawyer and a good psychologist in, even if you kill four people, you're going to get a lenient sentence.

That's the wrong message.

BANFIELD: Danny, I've got 10 seconds, literally, left.

CEVALLOS: I can do it.

BANFIELD: You've got to do it.

What about a move to reconsider? Do the prosecutors have that in their arsenal? The family wants it. Do that prosecutors have that?

CEVALLOS: I've reviewed the Texas code. There appears to be provisions that allow for appeal of juvenile dispositions, but not for this reason, not simply because you're not happy with the outcome.

If it was a legal sentence or at least a legal disposition in the juvenile system, then there's virtually nothing, I believe, that can overturn it.

BANFIELD: And yet when publicity strikes, strange things can happen, so we'll have to keep our eyes on this just to see if anything -- if there's any recourse anyone has over this judge and her decisions in this particularly distressing situation.

Gentlemen, thank you both. Appreciate it, Danny Cevallos and Paul Callan for us. Coming up, talk about sending pretty mixed signals, that sign language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela memorial, he is now speaking out.

He's saying he's schizophrenic. He also says that he is a champion of sign language, even though what he's doing wasn't sign language, according to the experts.

You're going to hear from the man himself. He spoke with CNN. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: If this next story weren't so serious, it would be downright hilarious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello. Welcome so far. Well, cigarette joined bringing in different to you. A circle. And I would like to pray this offering. Basically this is fun. All of these balls to prove -- this is good. I'm sorry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Jimmy Kimmel, weaving his magic last night, but here's the real story.

Instead this nonsensical performance of the man hired to translate Nelson Mandela's memorial service for the deaf actually is getting more sad with each new revelation.

That man himself is now telling CNN that he is qualified, that he is sorry if people think that he messed up, but that he is also mentally ill.

He spoke with our David McKenzie, who joins me live now from Johannesburg.

David, first of all, when you tracked him down, did he shed any light on how all of this happened and why he thinks he's still in the right?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He said he had been hired for several years for these kinds of jobs, particularly interpreting for the South Africa's president. So, in his mind, he was the right man for the job. He said he has done training doing sign language. I pushed him on that issue several times. He didn't specify what training that was. He says if anybody said he did a bad job, that's one thing, but he knows what he's doing. Deaf experts here in South Africa very early on of those proceedings of nearly four hours of interpreting for world leaders, including Barack Obama, say he was signing absolute rubbish. When I put that to him he said well, in fact, he also has a mental illness and is on medication. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCKENZIE: What sort of disability do you have?

THAMSANOA JANTJIE, MANDELA MEMORIAL "INTERPRETER": I suffer from schizophrenic, which is controllable and I am -- I'm under treatment positively in hospital in South Africa. You can look at my portfolio. It speaks for itself. My portfolio shows exactly that I've been a champion of what I have been doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCKENZIE: A champion of what he has been doing. Well, he still appears to be defiant there, Ashleigh. But certainly, questions are being asked about the security issue that a man could be without particular qualifications, it seems, standing so close to so many world leaders, including Barack Obama. Ashleigh?

BANFIELD: Amen to that. The security issue and how he got hired in the first place with such questionable background. David McKenzie, live for us thank you for that, and good job securing that interview as well.

I want to take our viewers now to Capitol Hill where quite a few Democrats, and just as many conservatives are up in arms today, like most days. This time, over the bipartisan budget deal. They're up in arms over something bipartisan, something that the House plans to vote on today, and it's a really, really big deal: 1,012,000,000,000. That's a lot of numbers. So the two main takeaways are these: this plan nullifies most of those meat cleaver-like cuts known as the sequester. The plan also keeps the government funded, not just for a couple of week, not bouncing along into oblivion, but actually for two full years. Can you say budget?

First, however, it has to pass. That is my cue to bring in Dana Bash. I want to feel good about this. I have felt good in the past only to be dashed, Miss Bash. Tell me if I'm going to be dashed again.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I can't say for sure. It's looking like your hope is going to be justified. And let me start by bringing in the Democratic leader. First, let's start on the Democratic side, Nancy Pelosi, she's just wrapping up a press conference where she certainly said she and other Democrats are not fully happy with this deal. In particular, they're not happy that it does not include an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. But, she said, that she still believes that this is a good step forward and so she and others should support this. Listen to what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI, MINORITY LEADER: What I also said was if it's a stinking lousy budget, even with UI in it, we might not vote for it. So there was much improvement that had to take place in that bill for us to vote for it. And that improvement did take place and members will vote for it. The most unease we have, of course, is that unemployment insurance isn't in.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BASH: Well, she said it a lot more colorfully than I did. She believes it's a stinking lousy budget but members will vote for it. On the Republican side, this is where it's going to be really, really interesting, for so many reasons. There's so many layers of drama here.

First of all, there are a number of conservatives who say that they don't think it goes far enough or maybe it goes too far with regard to raising spending. And they're being pushed by outside groups, conservative groups, and you have a split within those who have aspirations for 2016, for the presidential race, who are pushing conservatives in the Republican caucus one way or the other.

For example, Marco Rubio wrote an op-ed this morning on the conservative website Brightbart saying members should vote against it. Meanwhile, of course, you have the author of this deal, Paul Ryan, saying that he obviously thinks it is at least a baby step and the right way to go with regard to taking the moves to bringing down the deficit, making the moves to at least getting the process of the budget working again. And that really was -- is, in large part, what this is about, Ashleigh.

Never mind so much the numbers and whether or not you're going to save money or dip into or attack the big problems of Medicare and so forth, what this was -- why so many people are breathing a sigh of relief, is it takes the crisis mode out of the budget process here. That is a big part of why you have bipartisan support for this.

BANFIELD: Because we're the children of the crisis, so it's kind of nice to know that's not coming down the pike again. And you know what, from the view from 30,000 feet, if they're both saying that this is a stinking deal, I think we've got a good deal. Dana Bash, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Always nice to see you.

Coming up, that first grader we introduced you to yesterday, little cutie pa-tootie, suspended after kissing a girl on her hand during reading group, he's back in school. Officials say they will so kindly drop the sexual harassment from his record, but you're not going to believe what they're going to change it to. We'll tell you in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: More than 50 interstate (ph) buslines are out of business today, all because of the safety crackdown that a lot of people say is overdue.

CNN's Alexandra Field is working the story for us, and the curious think, I have to say whenever I'm driving on a freeway, and I pass a bus, I'm always wondering who's watching these things? Who's looking after these things? And now I hear about this crackdown, and I - why now? What happened? How many people are getting shutdown and for what reasons? That's a lot to throw at you right upfront.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. A lot of people have been asking these questions, and there is a federal agency that oversees these passenger buses. This is a big industry we're talking about. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says that there are 700 million passenger bus trips every year, and there are 4,000 different bus companies. Big industry to regulate.

The agency is saying now that it's doing its most exhaustive crackdown, it's most in-depth investigation. They started by looking at 250 of the most at-risk passenger bus lines; they had determines these were the 250 most at-risk companies based on their records. They did an eight-month long investigation with 50 investigators. As a result of the investigation, 52 bus companies have been shut down, 340 buses have been taken off the road. What kind of violations did they find? That is the question we are all asking, Ashleigh.

And they say a few of the violations, the big violations they're seeing are failure to adequately maintain buses, inadequate drug and alcohol driver testing, and widespread hours of service violations. Again, this is looking at really just the 250 most at-risk lines.

BANFIELD: And as I understand it, we're talking about buses that you don't just buy your ticket and jump on. These are like taking boy scouts, senior citizens, school bands. Some of the most vulnerable groups, who have absolutely no clue what the plan is for their transportation.

FIELD: Sure. We've all been on the road and you see these buses going by you. There are 4,000 different companies, so who is riding these buses? Who is looking at these bus companies? Well, the agency that did this investigation says it doesn't stop here. They've also identified another 1,300 bus lines they're looking at now. From that group they chartered 250 more bus companies that they'll take a look at.

BANFIELD: Alexandra, here's what I don't understand: if we have all these shutdowns and people being thrown off the road until they fix the problem, how come they've been allowed on the road today, like before they were -- where was all this oversight leading up to this big crackdown?

FIELD: We're hearing that the goal is to make these buses safer, not necessarily just to go about shutting down bus companies that are trying to operate. There are bus companies that are operating fully in compliance. So those 52 companies that have been shutdown, well three of them have already met the federal safety regulations and they are operating -- they fixed it. Exactly.

Another 28 companies uncovered in this investigation that came into compliance before they had to be shut down. So, that's the goal of this, to bring these bus companies into compliance to make sure these 4,000 companies are operating in a safe way.

BANFIELD: So we're all safe. So, am I crazy? Don't answer that right away till I qualify it. Am I crazy when I hear those numbers? When you just quoted that 4,000 bus lines that are regulated? It sounds like 700 million passengers -- sounds as big as the airline industry. Is that sort of comparable?

FIELD: Absolutely. Look at these as two comparable industries. Part of the campaign here, part of the investigation is also getting passengers to be more aware. You don't just jump in anyone's car. You're not just going to jump on anyone's bus and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has put up a link on its website, it's trying to tell people it's launching this campaign saying Look Before You Book. People can go to the website and take a look at the safety tips they need to look out for and they can take a look at the history of some of these companies. You really do need to know --

BANFIELD: It's a bit weird, though. I get on a plane and don't look who is safest. I expect the same of my buses. But thank you for that. That's great advice I didn't know I needed to have, but good to know. Alexandra, always nice to see you. Thank you for that.

Coming up next, 14-year-old Daniel has been hearing voices in his head since he was just six years old. Since then, the voices have become louder and, at times, the voices encourage him to attack his little brother. Over the past several months, CNN has been documenting this young man's struggle with mental illness. The fight with the voices in his head, coming up. Dr. Sanjay Gupta will join me with a fascinating story that, get this, affects one in five kids across this country. We're right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)