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3 Men Convicted of Murdering Ahmaud Arbery Face Life in Prison; Biden Visits Coast Guard Service Members on Thanksgiving; Justice Department to Prioritize Cases Involving Violence on Flights; Biden's Struggle against Inflation Leads to Carter Comparisons; Poll: Americans Unhappy with Biden's Handling of Inflation. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 25, 2021 - 12:00   ET




ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN HOST: Hi everyone! Happy Thanksgiving! Welcome to this Special Edition of CNN Newsroom. I'm Alex Marquardt. We are beginning this hour with the convictions in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial. Travis and Gregory McMichael father and son as well as their neighbor William Roddie Bryan now face the possibility of life in prison as they await sentencing.

There will also be another trial in February as they face federal hate crime charges. 12 jurors found that all three defendants were guilty of the murder of Ahmad Arbery, a black jogger, who they chased in two pickup trucks and then shot dead. The prosecution said the verdict was based on facts and evidence and proved the jury system in this country works.

Georgia's Governor Brian Kemp said that he hoped the verdict would lead to what he called a path of healing and reconciliation. President Joe Biden said it was the justice system doing its job. CNN's Ryan Young has been following every step of this trial. He's live in Brunswick, Georgia. Ryan the verdicts are now in what's next for these men?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Happy Thanksgiving, Alex! You know, the sentencing has to go forward. And the judge has to make that final decision. But when you talk about some of the people who've already spoken about this case, you think about Brian Kemp, and what's already changed here in the State of Georgia you got to think there's now a hate crime law.

And they got rid of that Citizen's arrest law that was in the state for so long. But take a look at his image of the men being walked out of court. It was so surreal yesterday as they were being walked to the car to go back to jail. There were so many people out here cheering and so happy about the fact that they were found guilty.

When you think about this for the family and the fact that they went for months, not knowing if this would ever move forward and then all of a sudden the GBI comes in and this prosecution moves forward, you can understand why family members like Wanda Cooper-Jones were happy and satisfied about yesterday's verdict.


WANDA COOPER-JONES, MOTHER OF AHMAUD ARBERY: This is a second Thanksgiving that my family and I will share without Ahmaud. But this is the first Thanksgiving them we can look at that empty chair and said we finally got justice for Ahmaud. So I mean it's like a bittersweet moment. He's not here. But I know that he's in the heavens very, very, very, very thankful that we got justice for him.


YOUNG: Alex, you got to think about her emotions and the fact she kept her composure for so long. Lee Merritt being with her there for the whole step of the time a lot of people looking forward to hear what the federal government dues will be moving for it. It'd be interesting to see what the sentencing is handed down by the judge. And then coming weeks, Alex?

MARQUARDT: Yes, lots more still to come. Thank you, Ryan, and thanks for being there on this holiday. Happy Thanksgiving to you! Joining me now are two Former Federal Prosecutors Elliot Williams and Jennifer Rodgers. Elliot and Jennifer, thank you so much, and Happy Thanksgiving to you!


MARQUARDT: Jennifer, let's start with you. Prosecutors have said that they are going to seek life in prison without parole for all three of these men. Considering that they're convicted on multiple murder charges. How certain is that sentence when the judge decides and what factors go into that decision?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, under Georgia law, the judge is constrained here. His only decision is whether to grant them the possibility of parole after 30 years, he has no choice as to the life sentence piece of it.

So I think the judge will consider the evidence obviously he was there the entire time. He knows the case as well as anyone and think about whether they deserve the chance of parole in 30 years, particularly the two Greg McMichael and Roddie Bryan, who were not convicted of the malice murder like Travis McMichael was the gunman.

So I think he'll consider a particularly with respect to those two. But you know, he's the expert having sat through it also, we'll have to see what he decides.

MARQUARDT: There was so much focus, of course, on race in this trial that three white men now convicted of killing a young black man. Yesterday, the lead prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, was on CNN, take a listen to what she said about the jury and having faith in this jury, despite the fact that it was made up of 11 white jurors, and just one black juror take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LINDA DUNIKOSKI, COBB COUNTY SENIOR ASSISTANT ATTORNEY: After we pick the jury, we looked at them and realized that we had very, very smart, very intelligent, honest jurors who are going to do their job, which is to seek the truth.

And so we felt that putting up our case, it didn't matter whether they were black or white, that putting up our case, that this jury would hear the truth. They'd see the evidence and those they would do the right thing and come back with the correct verdict which we felt they did today.


MARQUARD: Elliot, Linda Dunikoski there saying that it didn't really matter what race the jurors were, did you - do you agree with her?

WILLIAMS: I mean that's a very complicated question. Does it matter what race the jurors are? No, of course, people of all races can be fair when they adjudicate you know hold someone else in judgment.


WILLIAMS: The bigger issue is how is it possible to strike virtually all of the black prospective jurors from a jury panel and end up with a jury that's 11 white individuals and one black individual in a county that is 26 percent African American, it seems that there was then a deliberate attempt with just looking at the stats and the numbers, a deliberate attempt by the defense attorneys to get black jurors off here.

So I think the question that we've all fixated on is can white people be fair when holding black, other white defendants in judgment? And that's maybe not the right question. Its why did these attorneys and how did these attorneys, and how does this system allow attorneys to be so deliberate and almost surgical in striking black jurors?

And that, you know, thankfully, a positive outcome was reached here. But I think that's the more troubling issue.

MARQUARDT: One of the most, I guess, obvious expectations expected developments after the verdicts was that the defense lawyers said that they would appeal and they have expressed some level of optimism in that endeavor. Jennifer, do you do you see any chance of success there?

RODGERS: I don't see anything obvious. I mean, they can appeal based on legal errors made by the judge you know issues with jury selection, you're there all sorts of things that they can appeal by they can even appeal saying that the evidence was insufficient to convict, so nothing jumps out at me.

I thought the judge was very good here. He made his evidentiary rulings properly, at least as far as I saw. I didn't see any big issues with the jury. The sufficiency of the evidence, certainly for sure, there was plenty of evidence and the way that the jury actually assigned relative culpability of each defendant with their verdicts demonstrates that they give very carefully view the evidence.

So I don't see anything here. I mean, we'll have to see what their papers say. But it seems like an uphill battle to me.

MARQUARDT: And no matter what happens with the state charges, they still face federal hate crime charges for a trial that's due to take place in February. And those charges, again, in the federal case also carry a potential sense of life in prison. Elliot, what do you expect in that case in that federal case?

WILLIAMS: Right. Well, there's a lot of you talked about race a little bit earlier, Alex, a lot of information simply didn't come out at this trial. That was a deliberate decision by the prosecutors to not bring up for instance, an allegation that Travis McMichael use the "N" word at the scene of the crime, and his text messages and internet history, sort of online postings, and it suggested racial bias for the use of ethnic slurs, all of that can come up in a federal civil rights trial.

So to some extent, it's the same facts here, but they're really not. It's a totally different matter. And, you know, prosecutors make decisions all the time as to what bring it - what to bring into court? What kinds of things to rise and essentially where to go in front of the jury?

This seemed like a deliberate attempt by these prosecutors to keep race out of it leave the racial questions and the questions of racial bias to the federal jury. So we'll see much more than in in some respects it's a fuller picture of what happened on that day.

MARQUARDT: Yes, decision that was questioned by many watching the trial. Arbery's mother was on CNN this morning, reflecting now on the verdict yesterday, take a listen to a little bit of what she had to say.


COOPER-JONES: Ahmaud --going to change. He has thought about that, that hey, problem in Georgia, he's caused that that citizen's arrest law to ask to be repelled, and I want people to think Ahmaud has change. Ahmaud lost his life, but he didn't lose his life in vain.


MARQUARDT: Jennifer, that murder was caught on tape; we saw it on video, how important do you think that video was to this case? What it wouldn't have happened at all without it?

RODGERS: Well, that's hard to say. It certainly didn't happen without it for some time. And in fact, we have a prosecutor under indictment herself for obstructing the case; I think it's fair to say that without a videotape, it's very, very unlikely that we would have seen this case brought.

So it was crucial. And you know, oftentimes nowadays, with all the surveillance cameras around much more as being captured than ever was before here on a rural road of course, that wasn't the case. It was due to Mr. Bryan and his cell phone that we saw it but you know you're right. Without the tape, we would have had nothing. So it's a good thing that we did.

MARQUARDT: All right. Well, so much more in this saga still to come. We know that you will be watching closely Elliot Williams and Jennifer Rogers, Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving!

WILLIAMS: Happy Thanksgiving!

RODGERS: Thanks, Alex.

MARQUARDT: And developing right now President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden just wrapped up a visit to U.S. Coast Guard Station visiting service members in Nantucket where they're spending their Thanksgiving, the first couple thanking those Coasties for their service. CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live with the first family in Nantucket.


MARQUARDT: Jeff this is a family tradition going back decades but they skipped it last year and now they're back?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Alex, it is a family tradition for the Biden's. But of course, this is the first time that Joe Biden has been on Nantucket as Commander in Chief. And we are just seeing those images coming in right now, from a visit that the President and the First Lady had to a U.S. Coast Guard, a branch station.

It's based here on Nantucket Island, just off the coast of Massachusetts. And the president had a virtual conversation with members of the military, all six branches Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, Space Force, as well as the Coast Guard there. He talked to service members, we are told from around the world thanking them for their service.

And as he was leaving there, he was asked what he's thankful for. And he turned to those members of the Coast Guard there and he said people like you around the world. And then he ticked through a lot of the places he's visited, of course, from the South China Sea to Afghanistan, to Iraq, so really thanking the troops here.

But beyond that this is largely a holiday for the president and his family. He arrived late Tuesday evening. He's scheduled to leave on Sunday. So certainly some downtime for the president, really at the halftime here of the final month of his first year in office, of course, on the heels of the infrastructure bill, which has been signed into law when he gets back to Washington next week that Build Back Better Agenda.

So has so much work to do to corral Democrats together here so a bit of a break, Alex, but not too long of a break here on a very sunny, beautiful day. I can say here in Nantucket, Alex.

MARQUARDT: And another thing that the president has to be thankful for is a clean bill of health. We've just learned that President Biden had a benign potentially precancerous lesion removed during his colonoscopy earlier this month. What do you - what do we - what else do we know?

ZELENY: We did learn that late last evening in a bit of an unusual Thanksgiving Eve letter from the president's physician, Dr. Kevin O'Connor said that there was a precancerous lesion that was removed, routine and regular similar to one that was removed in 2008.

So he said its routine surveillance there. The next colonoscopy coming in seven to 10 years so certainly does not seem to be anything for the President to worry about. But always a bit unusual when the White House releases a statement likes this on the eve of a holiday, Alex.

MARQUARDT: All right, a beautiful place to spend Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving to you, Jeff and to the rest of the CNN team up there!

ZELENY: And to you.

MARQUARDT: A federal crackdown on bad behavior in the skies, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing federal prosecutors to prioritize cases involving violence on flights this move coming amid a sharp increase of wave really of assaults against airline workers.

It also comes as the country goes into this peak holiday travel season, which is already setting records. CNN's Pete Muntean is watching all of this live at Washington's Reagan National Airport. Pete in the past few days, we've been talking about lots of big numbers that were being predicted for today and going into the weekend. How's it all playing out?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, the big headline here, Alex is that things have been relatively smooth. Given this big onslaught of people coming back to air travel 2.3 million people screened by the TSA at airports across the country just yesterday, that is a new record of the pandemic, the highest number we've seen since March of 2020.

Double what we saw this time last year 88 percent of what we saw back in 2019, before the pandemic, but those numbers really underscores just how important this push by the Department of Justice really is when it comes to these unruly, ugly violent passengers on board planes.

Remember the issue here the FAA cannot press criminal charges against these passengers. It can only bring civil fines. Just look at the numbers 5300 reports of unruly passengers by flight crews to the FAA just this year alone.

The FAA has instituted enforcement action in 266 of those cases. And it's referred 37 of those most extreme cases, to the Department of Justice, and those passengers are the ones who could face up to 25 years in prison.

AG Merrick Garland says "Passengers who assault intimidate or threatened violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees. They prevent the performance of critical duties to help ensure safe air travel".

The DOJ says it's committed to sharing information with the FAA when it comes to this but one thing we have to be thankful for are the flight attendants who have been on the front lines of this issue and on the federal mandates that went into place Alex, you know this is not over and we will see just how this pans out. As more people come back to air travel we're only at the start.

MARQUARDT: That's how bad has gotten the Justice Department needs to take action. All right, Pete Muntean out there at DCA thanks so much, Pete Happy Thanksgiving! And now to Wisconsin where three more children who were injured in that deadly Christmas parade incident are out of the hospital.

They're going to be with their families for Thanksgiving that's the good news. 10 kids are still at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin the hospital is saying that five are in critical condition, and three in good condition.


MARQUARDT: Of course our thoughts are with them and with their families on this holiday. Now six people were killed and dozens hurt after an SUV rammed through a crowded parade on Sunday. The driver Darrell Brooks faces five counts of first degree intentional homicide, and more expect more charges are expected.

Coming up inflation, high gas prices and sinking poll numbers. President Joe Biden is fighting an uphill battle for messaging on the economy. And he's likely trying very much to avoid a comparison to another president. That's coming up next.



MARQUARDT: This week, there's been some good economic news that you might not have noticed weekly jobless claims hit their lowest point in decades. Economists say that it is proof that the economy is rebounding after 20 months of pandemic disruption.

But the Biden White House is struggling to connect that story to what you pay for gas and groceries every single day. And it's a reason that some like our next guests are invoking a presidential comparison that Democratic presidents look to avoid, at all costs.

Jimmy Carter, for some perspective; let's bring in CNN Presidential Historian Tim Naftali. Tim thanks so much for your time and Happy Thanksgiving!

TIM NAFTALI, FORMER DIRECTOR, NIXON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY: Happy Thanksgiving to you Alex! Well, should we should we start with the good news or the bad news?

MARQUARDT: Let's start with the good news. Let's start - let's start with the good news that many might not be aware of. And then how it plays into that Carter comparison, we've got over 5 million jobs, since Biden took office that were created the unemployment rate under 5 percent.

But despite that only 30 percent of Americans think that the economy is doing well, according to new polls. So is Biden having a difficult time getting that message out?

NAFTALI: Oh, he's having a very difficult time getting the message out. And let's just talk about the differences between now and the Carter era. The first big difference is in the Carter era, following the Ford era, we had something called stagflation. So we had both inflation, high inflation, and we had high unemployment.

We're not seeing that right now. Unemployment is dropping, when Jimmy Carter became President, unemployment was over 6 percent. Unemployment now is just over 4 percent. And it's continuing to drop. That's a big difference. What people are focusing on, however, is the fact that we have a more than a 6 percent inflation rate, which we haven't had, since the first years of the Reagan Administration.

And that's understandably worrying a lot of people. Because what we don't know is whether it's going to plateau at 6 percent, and then start to go down as the pandemic ends, or we're going to see a return to the very high inflation that prevented Jimmy Carter from being reelected in 1980.

MARQUARDT: When President Trump was in office, we got used to his approval rating, staying pretty flat at 40 and change. But we have seen some real fluctuation with President Biden, we're now over 300 days into his presidency, and his approval rating now is underwater. So what do you think it would take for Biden to get that back up?

NAFTALI: Well, understandably, we Americans are in a sour mood, we're really tough on our presidents. And the pandemic is wearing down a lot of our patients. And so I think it'd be very difficult to be President of the United States, regardless of which party you are from, at this point in time.

Look, if inflation plateaus at six, and then starts to come down, if we see the supply chain issues resolved in the early part of 2022. If we find that there is not another variant, like, you know, like, the very the D variant, and not only do we have more people vaccinated, but we find that in infection rates and hospitalization rates are going down.

Then I think the American people will start to appreciate the President of the United States because when Americans feel good about themselves in their future, and about their ability to feed their families, they reward presidents and so if those conditions obtain 2022, should be very good for Joe Biden.

One thing that he faces the Jimmy Carter didn't, is it; he's dealing with a pandemic. When you think about Carter, Carter's challenges were different. The inflation rate was somewhat similar in 77, in early 1978, but everything else was different. It's a pandemic that makes Joe Biden's problems unique. MARQUARDT: Is that why you say we're at a fork in the road like in 1979?

NAFTALI: Yes, I think we're at a fork in the road. Now if there's a structural reason, and by the way, I'm not an economist, but I read them, I understand what they're saying usually. They're debating it. If we're at the point at a takeoff point, as we were in 19 - early 1978. And we go from 6 percent to 14 percent, and then you're going to see our interest rates go up and a recession.

But you know, what happened in 1978. And Islamic revolution happened in 78 in Iran, and we had a second major oil crisis. So if Joe Biden is fortunate enough, and we are all fortunate enough to avoid some kind of international crisis that shoots up prices this coming year, we should not see the spike in inflation rates that happened in 79 and doomed the Carter Presidency.

MARQUARDT: Alright, well, President Biden at a real crossroads here less than a year into his presidency. Tim Naftali Presidential Historian thank you so much and again Happy Thanksgiving!

NAFTALI: Happy Thanksgiving to you and everyone watching!


MARQUARDT: Coming up. It's America's second COVID Thanksgiving. But what a difference a year makes? What you need to know if you're gathering today and the warning signs that we're watching right now as cases creep up despite the mass availability of vaccines that's coming up.


MARQUARDT: For the second year in a row Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving during a global pandemic.