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Closing Arguments Begin in Jennifer Crumbley Trial; Fani Willis Under Fire; Interview With Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO); Bodies of Killed U.S. Troops Return Home. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 02, 2024 - 13:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Soon, we will see President Biden fulfill perhaps his most solemn of duties as commander in chief, receiving troops who made the ultimate sacrifice to the country as they return home.

He and the first lady will attend the dignified transfer of the bodies of three soldiers killed Sunday by a drone attack in Jordan, Sergeant William Rivers, Sergeant Kennedy Sanders, and Sergeant Breonna Moffett. The plane transporting the fallen will land at Dover Air Force Base, where, in a process of ritual and precision, they will be taken to the mortuary to prepare them for burial.

The soldiers are the first U.S. troops killed by Iranian-backed militias, who've launched scores of attacks against American forces protesting the war in Gaza. We should note that, today, one militia group said that strikes against the United States would continue, though Iran's president also stressed today that his country -- quote -- "will not start any war."

Let's turn now to CNN's M.J. Lee, who's tracking this from the White House.

And, M.J., the president, is meeting now as we speak with these families.


And, Boris, this is one of the hardest and most gut-wrenching things that the president can do in his role as commander in chief, and that is to bear witness to and honor these three American soldiers returning home after they were killed in the line of duty and consoling and comforting their families.

This is Sergeant William Rivers, as you said, Sergeant Kennedy Sanders, Sergeant Breonna Moffett. They were killed in that drone attack in Jordan last weekend, and they were the first Americans that were killed, first U.S. troops that were killed since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war.

And earlier this week, we actually got to see how the president speaks in private with some of these Gold Star families. There was a moment where he was speaking with the family members of Sergeant Kennedy Sanders, and this was when they actually learned for the first time that she had been posthumously promoted to sergeant.

And we saw how the president, as he so often does, referencing his own grief around the death of his son Beau to try to comfort and grieve with these parents. Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: By the way, we're promoting her posthumously to sergeant.

ONEIDA OLIVER-SANDERS, MOTHER OF KILLED U.S. SOLDIER: Oh, wow. That is the best news I have heard today. Thank you so much. You don't know how much that means to us.

BIDEN: Oh, well, I tell you what. It means a lot to me. My son spent a year in Iraq, until I lost him.

And I -- you know, 1 percent, 1 percent of all these kids are the ones that take care of 99 percent of us.


LEE: So the president arrived at Dover Air Force Base about an hour ago, and there's about an hour that's built into a schedule this afternoon precisely to meet with some of these family members in person.

And, of course, Boris and Brianna, he has attended these dignified transfers in the past as vice president, as senator and once before as president as well back in 2021, when those 13 U.S. service members were killed at an attack outside Kabul Airport in Afghanistan.

And, of course, at this moment, we are also just waiting to learn exactly how the U.S. retaliates in response to these three American soldiers being killed. But putting that aside this afternoon, the president is very much focused on honoring their lives and really trying to comfort their families -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: A process that, as you noted, M.J., he is familiar with.

M.J. Lee from the White House, thank you so much.

We want to turn now to CNN national security reporter Natasha Bertrand. She's at the Pentagon for us.

Natasha, we know the president has decided on a U.S. response to this drone attack, officials saying that it's going to be multitiered. Do we have more details on what we should expect?


We reported earlier in the week that we do believe that possible response options could be more strikes in Iraq and Syria, where those Iran-backed militias have been operating. It could include a non- kinetic response, in other words, an offensive cyberattack that could attempt to cripple some Iranian and Iran-backed infrastructure.


What's unclear at this point is if it's going to target people or facilities or even both. But the point is that the administration really wants to make a very strong message here -- send a very strong message here after these Iran-backed groups killed those three U.S. service members on Sunday.

And they have emphasized here that this is going to be a broader and larger response than we have seen them take in the past when these Iran-backed groups have launched attacks on U.S. and coalition bases in Iraq and Syria, previous attacks that, of course, have not killed U.S. service members. This was the first time that U.S. service members have died.

And so they feel the need to take a much more forceful response. We are expecting some kind of response soon. The clock is ticking here, as defense officials have told us, but we still don't have real guidance on timing just yet. But the question now is, how do you calibrate this response by attacking these Iran-backed groups, but not sparking a regional war?

And we have also reported that the administration is very reluctant to take any kind of action against Iran directly by striking inside Iran itself. But Iran's president is preemptively responding to this and saying that Iran is prepared to strike back, even though it is not at this moment, of course, wanting to start a war. They are prepared to respond, if necessary. Here's what he said.


EBRAHIM RAISI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We have said many times we will not initiate any war. But if anyone wants to bully, Iran will respond firmly.


BERTRAND: So, this aligns with what CNN reported earlier in the week, which is that Iran doesn't necessarily want to engage in a direct confrontation or war with the United States.

They were kind of taken aback and surprised that their Iran -- Iranian proxy groups managed to kill three U.S. service members in a way that could spark an escalation that they had perhaps been trying to avoid. And so what remains to be seen now is just how far the administration is going to take this response, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Natasha Bertrand live from the Pentagon for us, thank you so much -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: We're joined now by Democratic Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado. He's a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And, Congressman, of course, this is a solemn day today. We are awaiting the dignified transfer of the remains of these three service members. How are you reflecting on this moment?

REP. JASON CROW (D-CO): Well, it is a solemn day.

And I join the country in mourning the loss of these service members, and the president is doing exactly the right thing by reaching out to their families and participating in the dignified transfer ceremony. But this is just another example that this is not abstract.

When you're a commander, either a military commander or the commander in chief, as the case might be with President Biden, you have to look at the very real impacts of what's going on here. It's not OK to be one of these armchair generals in D.C. and talk tough on Twitter, on social media, because there are very real consequences to this.

So we have to respond, and we have to deter, but we also have to de- escalate at the same time.

KEILAR: And the president had stressed that the attack would be coming in a place and a time of America's choosing. Is there a risk of waiting too long? Why or why not, in your opinion?

CROW: Well, that's exactly right that we will do this in a time and place and a manner of our choosing, because we are in the position of strength, and we should always lead in the position of strength.

We shouldn't allow or let our allies or our adversaries or our enemies, nobody else but us, decide how we're going to respond to this and do so in our own interests, so we're not provoked into responding before we're ready. We will do so in a way that sends a very strong message, that imposes costs on Iran and its proxies for doing this, but also de-escalates as well.

And we shouldn't be forecasting also the details of this, and nobody has, about how we're going to respond,because that obviously would put our service members at greater risk.

KEILAR: CNN is reporting that U.S. officials believe Iranian leaders were caught off guard by the drone attack that killed these soldiers.

It's clear, though, it's not as if there haven't been many other attacks that could have been just as deadly if the opportunity had allowed U.S. officials from the Biden administration have been very clear about that. Iran was also caught by some surprise over Hamas' attack.

At what point does their surprise not fly as the U.S. is considering Iran's culpability here?

CROW: Well, their surprise doesn't fly right now because they have actually created the conditions for this.

Iran engages in what's called defense in depth, right? They have created these proxies, these unofficial militia groups and others that do these things on their behalf. They train these proxy forces, they equip them, and then they have plausible deniability when they do things.


So they tried to create this defense in depth, but they know what these folks are trying to do generally. They may not know specifically about attacks, but they know generally what these proxy forces do. So they obviously bear some responsibility for it.

So, yes, they might be surprised, but they should be held accountable for the actions of these groups that they have trained, they have equipped, and they have enabled to actually conduct these operations. And that's exactly what the administration is going to do, is impose costs, but do so in a manner that doesn't escalate and put our service members in the region at greater risk.

KEILAR: The Biden administration keeps insisting that this conflict is contained to Gaza.

And yet, as you mentioned here, we are about to witness this very -- this reality, right, this dignified transfer of these three service members killed by an Iranian proxy that has stepped up its attacks considerably in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. And that's coming after two Navy SEALs died intercepting Iranian weapons bound for the Houthis in Yemen, who have endangered the global economy with attacks on the Red Sea.

Can the administration keep insisting that this conflict is contained to Gaza, when we are seeing the reality of what it is -- the effects of it on service members far beyond?

CROW: Well, I think this is a really important reminder to the American people that we live in a very dangerous, very unstable world, and we have hundreds of thousands of service members stationed throughout the world, 100,000 in Europe.

We have service members in Africa and Middle East, throughout the Pacific, South America, everywhere who are keeping us safe, sometimes under very dangerous conditions. So, we can never let our guard down and be complacent, because we have seen over 100 attacks actually against shipping, against our service members, against our outposts, our forward operating bases since the October 7 attack.

But we have seen a lot of attacks before that too. So we can never be complacent and never let our guard down. And that's what we're seeing right now.

KEILAR: Why do you see that emphasis, though, on insisting that this is a conflict that is contained to Gaza, when we are seeing, yes, attacks on U.S. troops who were there before this conflict, but that have become heightened in a way that arguably they would not have if it were not for this conflict?

CROW: Yes, I absolutely agree with you here. We certainly have a national interest in making sure that this conflict is done the right way.

And that's why I have been very vocal, actually, the last couple of months in pushing Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israelis to shift the nature of their offensive, because what we're seeing is, as a result of the very large numbers of civilian casualties, a rise in extremism, a rise in sympathies with terrorist organizations, and a rise in attacks against U.S. facilities and interests and personnel as a result of that.

So we are involved in this too. And we have an interest in making sure that our national interests are served and we're protecting our troops by shifting policy in a more appropriate direction in the battle between Israel and Hamas right now.

KEILAR: Congressman Jason Crow, thank you so much for joining us as we do await this dignified transfer. We really appreciate your time today.

Breaking news -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Yes, Brianna, we have some breaking news from Fulton County, Georgia, where district attorney Fani Willis, who's spearheading the Georgia election subversion case against former President Donald Trump, has now filed a written response to an attempt to have her disqualified.

CNN's Zach Cohen is joining us now.

So, Zach, here Fani Willis is responding to this attempt to have her disqualified over allegations that she has had an inappropriate relationship with the top prosecutor, one of the top prosecutors that she hired to take on this case. Walk us through her response.

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Boris, we just got this ruling -- or this motion minutes ago.

And Fani Willis, in her opposition to this disqualification effort, calls the allegations salacious and acknowledges that they garnered a lot of media attention over the last couple of days. But she goes into point by point rebutting the legal arguments for why she should not be disqualified.

And I'm going to go through a few of them. She says: "District attorney Willis has no financial conflict of interest that constitutes a legal basis for disqualification." She says: "There is no personal conflict or interest -- of interest that justifies her disqualification personally or that of the Fulton County district attorney's office."

She says: "The attacks on special prosecutor Nathan Wade' -- that's who she's alleged to have had an affair with -- "The attacks on his qualifications are factually inaccurate, unsupported and malicious, in addition to providing no basis whatsoever to dismiss the indictment or disqualify special prosecutor Wade."

It goes on to say that she has made no public statements that warrant disqualification or judicial inquiry and that the criticism process utilized to appoint and compensate the special prosecutors in this case demonstrates basic misunderstandings of rudimentary county and state regulations and provides no basis for the dismissal of the indictment or disqualification of any members of the prosecution team."


So, obviously, she is, again, point by point disputing the legal arguments that were raised by Trump's lead attorney, Steve Sadow, and the attorneys for two other Trump's co-defendants in this Georgia case. We're still obviously going through this motion.

But it's clear Fani Willis says, no, there is no legal basis for me to be disqualified from this case or for the indictment itself to be thrown out.

SANCHEZ: And she and the defendant's team are due in front of a judge on February 15 to make this argument in person. We know you will be watching that alongside us.

Zach Cohen, thanks so much for the reporting.

There is a lot of news we're covering this afternoon, including closing arguments under way in the trial of Jennifer Crumbley. Remember, she's the mom of the Michigan school shooter. We have the latest from inside the courtroom and some very powerful testimony -- when we come back.



SANCHEZ: The involuntary manslaughter trial of Michigan mom Jennifer Crumbley could soon be in the hands of the jury.

Happening right now, the prosecution is presenting their closing arguments in this case. The defense rested late this morning after calling the defendant as its only witness. Crumbley's attorney appeared to whisper in her client'S ear moments after deciding not to call any other potential witnesses.

The state's cross-examination of Crumbley was also relatively brief, focusing on her son's mental health and how he got the weapon that he used in the Oxford High School shooting.

Let's check in with CNN's Jean Casarez, who's been following all of the details in this case.

Jean, what did you make of the earlier testimony, deciding not to call additional witnesses, the defense?

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They just put on who they believe is their star witness, right? And they deliberated. We heard yesterday at the end of court Shannon Smith, defense attorney, who really just sort of speaks, she said: "My client and I have a differing of opinion of who to call following Jennifer Crumbley."

So, my guess is that Jennifer Crumbley won, that she didn't want those other witnesses. Do we know who they are? We know her parents were on the witness list. We do know that. Don't know any more.

But the cross-examination today was short. It was very short. I think most people believe that it would be extensive. It was aggressive. But people thought it was going to go into nooks and crannies and just really focus on things. They will -- in their closing argument that's beginning now, they will focus and tie it all together.

They will take that cross-examination and make the most of it to this jury, because they have the burden. One thing. We know there's two theories they're proceeding on for involuntary manslaughter, gross negligence, as we have been talking about, but failure to perform a legal duty.

The parents had a legal duty to their child, to the community, and there was failure because of gross negligence to perform that duty, two theories going to the jury for that one count, no lesser includeds at all, just involuntary manslaughter.


MARC KEAST, ASSISTANT PROSECUTING ATTORNEY, OAKLAND COUNTY, MICHIGAN: And you don't deny that the Sig Sauer 9-millimeter handgun was in fact the murder weapon?


KEAST: And you also don't deny that that gun was gifted by you and your husband to your son on November 26.

CRUMBLEY: Describe gifted.

KEAST: How about when he posted on Instagram his new Christmas gift?

CRUMBLEY: Correct. And I explained yesterday that it was for him to use at the shooting range. We didn't just hand him a gun as a, "Here you go, son." It was something he could use when we went to the range as a family together.


CASAREZ: Very important in the prosecution's case, place the issue of the gun and the blame on her, that she was there at the range. She bought all the bullets on Saturday when they went to test out that brand-new gun. And it was those bullets that killed those four students.

And causing the death is an element that they have to show beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jennifer Crumbley caused the death of those students.

SANCHEZ: An important fact to remember in the case.

Jean, we will let you get back to watching the closing arguments. Thanks so much for the update.

We do want to bring in CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson.

Joey, you have obviously watched a lot more cross-examination and testimony than I ever have, but it seemed short to me. And I'm wondering if you think that's because both sides felt confident that they got what they wanted out of her.

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, what happens, Boris, is that these things are strategic in nature. What things? Meaning your strategy and what you're going to do.

Every attorney does things differently. I certainly -- as Jean Casarez noted, we were anticipating that they would, that is, the prosecution, poke holes through everything that she was talking about, the foreseeability with respect to how this could have occurred, her specific negligence, specific instances of that, going into number two, the notice that she would have had with regard to her son's mental disabilities or what have you, number three, talking about the reasonableness.

Instead, they're talking about the fact that she's a swinger and other things that I think are appealable. I'm surprised the judge allowed that to come in. So, no, I mean, look, I would have maybe handled it differently. Many of my colleagues would have, but this is something that the prosecution perhaps believed that they needed to do.

And they would really go to the closing argument to make the case that the mother was so grossly negligent with respect to what she did and what she did not do, and the jury would then have to conclude based on the facts presented whether that was enough beyond the reasonable doubt to prove her guilty.


But I think the cross-examination could have been a lot more meticulous.

SANCHEZ: When it comes to her defense, is one of the things that you perhaps would have done differently having her be the only witness?

JACKSON: So, that, I certainly don't quibble with. And let me explain why, Boris.

What happens is, a defense attorney and a defendant -- the defendant has no burden of proof. A defendant can sit there and not even cross- examine witnesses at all. It is the state, the government that has to really bring forward the issue.

And I think what the defense really wanted to do from the outset -- we saw it in the closing argument -- very -- excuse me -- the opening statement. It's very unusual to make the commitment that my client will testify.

They did that and they delivered with respect to having her testify, giving context with regard to the blame issue, the husband being the person who purchased the gun, giving context to the issue of the meeting they had with the school, saying it was not abrupt, it was a matter of fact, and there was no basis or reason to believe that their son represented any danger, giving context to the notion that they had any information, that is, Jennifer and her husband, that he had these medical or mental health maladies, giving context to the notion that the school had this information about their son that they didn't give to her, right?

So how was she to know that her son would behave in this way? No behavioral issues to speak of in the school at all, nothing that they could point to that he did wrong in a violent nature to anyone else. So how was she to know?

And so with regard to having her testify, I don't quibble with that. I thought she helped herself significantly in doing so. Now it will be up to a jury to assess her credibility and to ultimately determine whether she's guilty of this involuntary manslaughter.

SANCHEZ: I want to zoom in on that question of credibility, specifically with a piece of testimony that you mentioned. She talked about the meeting that took place at the school before the shooting and said that it didn't end abruptly, that she was invested in the conversation.

Earlier in the trial, a counselor testified that she was disengaged, that she seemed inconvenienced by having to go to the school to talk about her son, and also that the meeting ended abruptly. How does a jury go about determining which is more credible, which testimony is more credible to them?

JACKSON: Yes, so, Boris, usually, with credibility assessments, it's based upon corroboration.

And I think the way that this needs to be addressed -- what's this? This meaning the context of that meeting. Your son apparently wrote on that piece of paper in terms of he needed help, putting a gun there, putting blood there. That's a big deal. So now the defense is saying it was really a nothing meeting, they were just bringing it to their attention. They would have gladly taken their child home.

What's the corroboration? The corroboration is, the school had a duty also, right, to do something about it. The school could have checked the backpack if they thought that Ethan was such a danger. They didn't do it. The school could have looked within it. The school could have demanded that she take him home.

The school could have removed him from class. The school could have done any number of things, which they do. The school could have said that, you know what, your child says that his life is a mistake. Did you know that, that he was having a rough time? Did you know that, that he was sleeping in class? Did you know that?

So in terms of your question and assessing credibility, you assess it by the outside circumstances. And if it was such a big deal to the school, meaning Ethan Crumbley's behavior, why wasn't the mother put on notice of it? And if their son was such a danger, why didn't they insist he come home?

So those are the arguments that will be made from a defense perspective. Whether the jury buys that argument is going to be up to those 12 people who are deliberating ultimately beyond the reasonable doubt unanimously as to guilt or innocence.

SANCHEZ: Joey Jackson, always appreciate the perspective.

If I ever get charged with anything, I'm calling Joey Jackson. Thanks so much, Joey.


SANCHEZ: So we are waiting for the dignified transfer of those three U.S. soldiers who were killed in Jordan at Dover Air Force Base. President Biden is there now to receive them with the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other officials.

We're going to bring that moment to you as we get it.