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White House: Biden Tells Putin U.S., Allies To "Respond Decisively" If Invasion; Colorado Governor Reduces Truck Driver's Sentence From 110 Years To 10; Georgia Hospitals Issue Joint Plea To Unvaccinated As Omicron Surges. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired December 31, 2021 - 11:30   ET


WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: So I think these talks emphasized the importance of the conversations, the dialogue, the discussions that will take place in Geneva and Vienna and Brussels in the first half of January. [11:30:10]

That's the route. It's the conversations. It's the dialogue that will look for ways to reduce the tensions, to resolve the conflicts. This is the kind of thing that needs to happen and it is scheduled to happen next week. So the conversation yesterday set the stage for those conversations.

AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR: What tools does the U.S. have available right now to continue to put pressure on Putin moving forward? I mean, it seemed like a pretty frank conversation. Biden saying you better not invade Ukraine, Putin saying if you impose sanctions it's going to be a huge mistake in our bilateral relations. Are the options limited since the U.S. has this really fine line -- OK, looks like we lost the ambassador's signal there. We're going to take a short break from here.

Coming up, Colorado's governor responding to public outcry over a prison sentence many said was too harsh against a truck driver involved in a deadly crash. That truck driver's lawyer reacts to his commuted sentence. That's next.



WALKER: All right. Back with me is William Taylor, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Glad we have you back. I was in the middle of asking you what can and should the U.S. do if Russia invades or at least what can they do to prevent it, first of all?

TAYLOR: That's the right question, Amara. The question is how to deter an invasion.

The conversations leading up to yesterday and yesterday's conversation made it clear that there would be very high costs to the Russians if they decide to invade. And, indeed, this is the decision -- the decision point is with the Russians. Indeed with Mr. Putin, which is why it's a good thing to have the conversation between President Biden and President Putin.

But the costs would be very high, economically. The sanctions they talked about are clear. The other thing, of course, is the Ukrainian army is much better off, much stronger, much better led, much better equipped than in 2014 when the Russians invaded at that time.

And the Ukrainians are defending their own land. The Russians are attacking what most Russians think of as a friendly neighbor. So this will be a very high cost.

In addition, the United States and NATO has decided it will do two things if the Russians invade. One is it will provide additional assistance, military assistance, weapons to the Ukrainians to allow them to defend themselves. And it will -- NATO will also redeploy units, military units from the United States, from other parts of Europe to the eastern allies, the eastern NATO allies.

So the costs to Mr. Putin are very high. The question is exactly the one you asked, how to deter and hopefully these measures will indicate, will have President Putin recognize that these costs are not worth it.

WALKER: Yeah, everyone intends to deter escalation on both sides.

Ambassador William Taylor, appreciate you. Thank you so much.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

WALKER: Developing this morning, Colorado's governor has commuted the 110-year prison term of a truck driver down to ten years for his role in a fatal crash that killed four people. The case of Rogel Aguilera- Mederos gained national attention after advocates called his century- plus punishment harsh. He says the brakes on his semi truck failed causing him to plow into traffic.

Now, Governor Jared Polis said in a letter that the life sentence was inappropriate for a tragic but unintentional act.

And joining me now is Leonard Martinez. He is an attorney for Mr. Aguilera-Mederos.

Sir, thank you so much for joining me on this New Year's Eve.

First off, your reaction and your client's reaction to this move by the governor.

LEONARD MARTINEZ, ATTORNEY FOR ROGEL AGUILERA-MEDEROS: Obviously, we're grateful for the governor, first of all, to take the application for clemency, doing his due diligence. His office and him worked hard in the last few weeks and we're grateful for the chance for my client now that went from 110 years now to ten years with the possibility of parole in five.

WALKER: I wanted to bring this up to you because "The Denver Post's" editorial board a few weeks ago called on the governor to do what he just did, commute your client's sentence. The paper compared your client's case to that of former Boulder Mayor, Bob Greenlee, who is charged after killing a woman in a car crash, and prosecutors say that he was speeding and driving aggressively, yet he got a plea deal. He served no priso4d44d4n time, and ten years probation and ordered to pay money to charity.

I bring this up because I wonder if you think ten years behind bars is still too long.


MARTINEZ: Well, we do. Again, we're grateful for the governor for this consideration, but when you take cases not only nationally, cases within Colorado and cases within Jefferson County themselves, most of those cases dealing with vehicular homicide deal with DUI or drugs in their system. And they've gotten a lot less than what my client is getting including the ten years.

So when you look at that and you look at other cases and it doesn't add up when you see that 110 years and now ten years, when you look at other cases that are similar. You scratch your head and try to figure out what's going on here.

WALKER: So, this came ahead of a hearing to reconsider his sentence on Monday. That was less than two weeks away what would have happened, do you believe, if the governor did not commute the sentence.

MARTINEZ: Well, we would have had a hearing. The judge set a hearing for January 13th. I think the judge would have had in front of him a reconsideration. It was actually filed, which is unusual by the district attorney's office.

It was asking the judge to reconsider his sentence. Now that his hands are no longer tied, he can reconsider the sentence. So, there would have been a hearing I think the judge was asking for limited testimony from the victims and he would have reconsidered whether 110 years was way too long.

WALKER: There's been a huge outcry to Aguilera-Mederos' case as I'm sure you have been following, and criticism against the criminal justice sentence and the mandatory guidelines in states. I would imagine you're on that side that there needs to be reform?

MARTINEZ: Absolutely. You see what happened in this case and with something that some people are calling a simple accident. We got to remember, there were four lives lost in this case. My heart goes out to the victims and their families.

But when you're dealing with a case like this, and there's 110-year sentence given to one individual and what could be considered negligence, you have to question the judicial system which includes the mandatory minimums, they have to be addressed and I think this case spotlights what needs to be addressed in it.

WALKER: Leonard Martinez, appreciate you joining me on this New Year's Eve. Thank you so much. And a happy, healthy 2022 to you.

MARTINEZ: And to you, too. Thank you for having me.

WALKER: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: And this just in, leaders at the zoo in Naples, Florida, responding publicly after their tiger was shot to save a man who was attacked after he put his hand into the animal's enclosure.

The Collier County sheriff's office released bodycam video. We want to warn you, it's quite graphic. It captures deputies responding to the scene and their attempts to free the man from the tiger's grip. You can hear the man repeatedly screaming for help saying please. Deputies eventually shot and killed the tiger to free that man.

The injured man may now face charges, but the zoo is wishing him well as they grieve the loss of their tiger.


JACK MULVENA, NAPLES ZOO PRESIDENT AND CEC: It was a bad mistake, bad decision, but we only wish him well in the recovery. I want to say that from the heart. We closed the zoo yesterday to give our staff time to grieve. We're continuing to give them time to grieve. We've arranged for a grief counselor. That's how significant this is. This is a huge impact for all of us.


WALKER: The zoo said they support the decision to shoot the tiger adding their employees would have done the same thing under the circumstances.

Coming up, Georgia hospitals working together to sound the alarm about the COVID surge. We'll talk to Atlanta's mayor about how her city is handling the demands on hospitals.



WALKER: As the omicron variant surges across the country, doctors are pleading with the unvaccinated to get a COVID vaccine. In Georgia, six hospitals in the Atlanta area joined forces this week to urge residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible. It comes as hospitals in the state report a staggering increase in the number of COVID patients that are hospitalized. Of course, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.

Joining me now is Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms whose last day in office is Monday.


So, it's a pleasure to have you on, and thanks so much for joining us on this New Year's Eve, Mayor. First off, will you please tell us what's going on in the hospitals in

Atlanta and how they are coping during the surge?

MAYOR KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS (D), ATLANTA: Well, thank you for having me. What we are seeing is very troubling. We are seeing a record number of COVID patients in our hospitals. Our record high was 162 last January. We are now over 170 at Grady hospital which is the largest trauma center in the southeastern United States.

So we are seeing over 80 percent capacity in our hospitals. Over 80 percent ICU capacity, and particularly when it comes to Grady Hospital which is in the heart of downtown Atlanta, when you have a major trauma center, you obviously have people coming in with heart attacks and other issues, and at the point that we are having to divert ambulance service from Grady hospital to other hospitals, and Grady is normally our overflow hospital, then that should be a concern for all of us.

WALKER: Wow. Ambulances are being turned away at the Grady Trauma Center. Yeah, that is concerning.

Since this recent spike in cases, mayor, you reinstated the city's indoor mask mandate, and you just recently cancelled the New Year's Eve peach drop. It was a second year in a row that you have had to do this.

What was behind your decision and why not have a scaled-down event like New York only outdoors with a vaccine and mask requirement?

BOTTOMS: Well, one of the challenges that we have in our state is really about the disagreement between my office as mayor and with the governor, so we don't have the ability to -- to require vaccinations and to require masks in the public setting so that was going to be one challenge for us.

But also when our major trauma center is almost at capacity, we have to think about large-scale events, so I was less concerned based on input from public health professionals about transmission and then outdoor settings, less concerned about that but more concerned about what a large event like this, the issues it could create when you're dealing with coordination of public safety in addition to where we are with this health emergency in our state, so we thought that it would be best to cancel this event.

We would rather be safe than be sorry. And, again, if people would simply get vaccinated, if they would get their booster shots, then we can all get back to normal at some point.

My husband has recently had a breakthrough case of COVID. He had a very, very, very tough time with COVID when he was infected in 2020. This time went easy but it didn't compare to what he experienced the last time, so vaccinations make a difference.

WALKER: Yeah. And Georgia has a low vaccination rate compared to other parts of the country, just 53 percent fully vaccinated. Before we go, Mayor, you are the first modern era Atlanta mayor not to

seek a second term. I know you've been asked this a million times so here we go, a million and one. Your last day in office is Monday.

What's next for you? Will we see you run for office again?

BOTTOMS: I will never say never. Right now I'm just going to take some time to breathe and do normal things like get my house in order which people do at the end of the year and then I'll be able to make some decisions very soon. I'm very grateful that I have some very good opportunities for me and it's the honor of my life to serve of as mayor of Atlanta.

WALKER: Well, we wish you all the best. I know your four years, you faced a lot of challenges including this pandemic that we continue to deal with and, of course, all of the unrest that we saw in the city. Thank you so much for your time. All the best to you, happy New Year.

BOTTOMS: Happy New Year.

WALKER: Colorado's governor is about to hold a briefing on these historic wildfires. We will bring it to you live as soon as it happens. That is the big breaking news we are following today.

CNN NEWSROOM with Phil Mattingly starts after this quick break.



PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to the New Year's Eve edition of CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Phil Mattingly. We are currently getting an update from Colorado's governor on the fast-moving wildfires that destroyed hundreds of suburban Boulder County homes.

Take a listen now.