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Actor, Activist Sidney Poitier Dead at Age 94; Sentencing Hearing for Three Men Convicted of Ahmaud Arbery's Murder; Record 4.5 Million Americans Quite Their Jobs in November. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired January 07, 2022 - 10:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let me let Jeffrey weigh in on this as well. Go ahead, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, what's interesting about how the prosecutors approached the case in Georgia, the state case, they stayed away from the racial issue. They did not portray this as a racially-motivated crime. They didn't argue that it was a racially motivated crime. They didn't present all the evidence that they had with regard to racial animus on the part of the three defendants. That was a strategic decision they made and it obviously paid off since they won the case that they brought.

But the question is, you know, is it important for society to have a trial that -- where the prosecutors argue, look, it is a separate and additional and important crime when you commit murder for reasons of racial bias. That's a different crime, a different set of facts to be proven. And the question is whether prosecutors will think it is worthwhile to pursue this case, even though when these defendants are all going to be serving an enormous time in prison.

A big factor in that is how the family of Mr. Arbery feels because that's something prosecutors take into consideration. It certainly sounds like both his mother and his father are against any sort of deal, but I suspect those discussions will continue for some time.

BLITZER: You think we'll hear from these three men who have been convicted of murder? Do you think we'll hear from them in the course of this sentencing procedure that is about to begin, Stephanie?

STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE, FORMER DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I think so. I think they're trying to get the judge to hear from them, to have some empathy, to give them the possibility of parole. They have nothing to lose at this point, to show some remorse, show some sorrow, to express their grief to the community, to Ahmaud Arbery's family. I do think you'll hear from them.

BLITZER: All right. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Jeffrey Toobin, we'll watch and see what happens in Brunswick, Georgia. Thanks very much for joining us.

All right, there is breaking news we're following right now. CNN has confirmed that the legendary actor and director and long time activist, Sidney Poitier, died at the age of 94. Poiter became the first black male and Bahamian actor to win the academy award for best actor back in 1964 for his role in the movie, Lilies of the Field.

In addition to his movie roles, he was a human rights trailblazer at the height of the civil rights movement, a truly, truly great man.

CNN's Sara Sidner has a look back at his extraordinary life.


SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Sidney Poitier was so much more than a film legend. He's revered not just because of what he did on screen but also because of his tremendous impact off screen as a champion of civil rights.

SIDNEY POITIER, BAHAMIAN-AMERICAN ACTOR: We believe in the essential dignity of every human being.

SIDNER: The son of a Bahamian tomato farmer, Poitier lived a life of firsts, the first black man to win an Oscar for best actor, and one of the first black people to become a true Hollywood star among the greatest of all time.

POITIER: We have lots and lots and lots of African-American actors. Now, when we didn't have any, I appeared, not because I brought so much, but because the time was right.

SIDNER: But his career almost ended before it ever began. As a teenager, Poitier auditioned for the American Negro Theater, but he was quickly thrown out because he couldn't read. He was tone deaf. And he had a thick Bahamian accent.

POITIER: He says, you're no actor. We got next to the door, he opened it, pushed me out and slammed it.

SIDNER: A determined Poitier would spend months perfecting his acting skills and modifying his speaking voice. His hard work would pay off in a big way.

POITIER: I was right. I know I was right.

SIDNER: In the 1950s, he appeared in more than a dozen films beginning with No Way Out, and including an Oscar-nominated performance in The Defiant Ones. However, it was his portrayal of a former G.I. in the 1963 movie, Lilies of the Field, that broke Hollywood's color barrier, earning him the coveted Oscar for best actor.

Poitier never overcame his tone deafness, lip-syncing the song amen in the famous Lilies scene, the songwriter, Jester Hairston, actually did the singing.


Poitier was considered a bankable star in 1967, starring in a landmark film, To Sir with Love.

POITIER: Those kids are devils incarnate. I tried everything.

SIDNER: Playing characters that would force audiences to confront racial prejudices.

POITER: They call me Mr. Tibbs.

SIDNER: But he would also challenge the Hollywood establishment, forcing a change in his iconic role as Detective Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 Academy Award-winning In the Heat of the Night, because of a scene that would require him to acquiesce to a racist character.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to take you over to Brownsville and put you on the bus myself.

POITIER: You aren't taking me anywhere, you dig? You're holding the wrong man.

SIDNER: That same year, he would star in the water shed film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, alongside Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.


SIDNER: The film not only depicted a successful interracial relationship, it also foreshadowed future progress in America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you given any thought to the problems your children are going to have?

POITIER: Yes. And they'll have some. And we'll have the children, otherwise I don't know what you would call it, but you couldn't call it a marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that the way joy feels?

POITIER: She feels every single one of our children will be president of the United States and they'll all have colorful administrations.

SIDNER: It is only fitting in 2009, Sidney Poitier would be presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Poitier once called his driving purpose to make himself a better person. He did. And he made us all a little bit better along the way.


BLITZER: Very sad indeed. Hollywood, indeed, all of us, the world, is mourning a true trailblazer. Sidney Poitier was 94 years old. Our deepest, deepest condolences to his family and to his friends. May he rest in peace. And may his memory be a blessing.

All right, we're going to go to Brunswick, Georgia, right now. The sentencing hearing has just begun. KEVIN GOUGH, ATTORNEY FOR WILLIAM RODDIE BRYAN: -- individuals who kill, who are convicted of felony murder without killing, attempting to kill or intending to kill are not eligible for the death penalty. We're pursuing that both under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, R41 (ph) Section 1 Paragraph 17 of the Constitution of the state of Georgia, we're asking the court to extend that reasoning one step further, reflecting evolving standards of decency and hold that the imposition of a sentence for life without parole for felony murder would likewise be unconstitutionally cruel under our Constitution's absent evidence that Defendant Bryan killed, attempted to kill or intended to kill Ahmaud Arbery. We don't believe any of those facts are in dispute in this case. That's our first motion.


LINDA DUNIKOSKI, PROSECUTOR: Yes, your honor. The recent felony murder is felony murder and different from malice murder is because of the lack of specific intent to commit the murder. As we all know, when a co-defendant kills -- well, when a co-defendant -- two men go into a convenience store and they attack the convenience store clerk and the clerk defended himself, shoots and kills one of the armed robbers, the first armed robber is responsible for the death of his friend and co- defendant under felony murder. Because while there was no intent for one armed robber to kill the other armed robber, it is a matter of responsibility under felony murder, not a matter of intent to kill.

And in this particular case, Mr. Bryan is eligible for this court to impose a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. There is nothing preventing this court from doing that on a felony murder charge because felony murder, once again, is about responsibility, not about intent to kill. Thank you.

WALMSLEY: All right. Mr. Gough?

GOUGH: Your honor, with all due respect, I don't believe that that response addressed the issue. The issue is force -- individual such as Mr. Bryan, who did not kill, did not attempt to kill and did not intend to kill, whether or not the Eighth Amendment allows the imposition of a sentence of life without parole, it is not a question of the Georgia sentencing scheme or statutes, it is a question of federal constitutional law. Clearly, under those circumstances, the death penalty, imposition of the death penalty, is cruel and unusual.

We are contending since in Florida, in1982, that standards and our sense of decency in society have evolved to the point where you should -- the Eighth Amendment does not allow the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for felony murder, absent, killing, an attempt to kill or intent to kill. And I don't think the state contests that those are not the facts of this case. I think the state is relying on the fact that the United States Supreme Court hasn't addressed this issue yet, at least not to my knowledge, where preserving the issue for appeal.

WALMSLEY: All right. The court received the motion to bar imposition of sentence of life without the possibility of parole, as Defendant Bryan, felony murder this morning. It looks like it was filed at 8:18. I have reviewed the motion. It cites the one case that was just referenced by Mr. Gough and having considered the arguments of counsel, the court denies the motion. Mr. Gough?

GOUGH: Thank you, your honor. Our second motion is a motion to declare unconstitutional the mandatory life sentence for felony murder for discreet class of offenders and then alternative motion to bar imposition of life sentence as to Defendant Bryan for felony murder.

The previous motion addressed whether or not Mr. Bryan was eligible under the Eighth Amendment for a sentence of life without parole. This motion challenges whether Mr. Bryan can be sentenced to a mandatory life sentence for felony murder, both as a class of individuals who have not killed and intended to kill or attempted to kill, and also, as to Mr. Bryan individually. And we contend that this is essentially -- the first part of it is taking the case Edmund (ph) case that has already been discussed this morning, not one step, but two steps, to strike down mandatory felony murder for people that convicted of felony murder that fall within that class of individuals that have not killed, attempted to kill or intended to kill.

This is an issue which has tremendous import in the state of Georgia and around the country. In that, there are hundreds in Georgia and probably thousands of individuals around the country who are serving life sentences, have been in prison for many, many years who drove the car that was used to escape from the armed robbery, or provided the key to break into the house, not knowing that it was occupied. There's all kinds of people out there across the country serving life sentences right now who never killed, attempted to kill or intended to kill but have been subjected to mandatory life imprisonment.

I would venture to say the majority of those individuals tend to be African-American, but I haven't studied it in depth in a while, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you're white, black or Martian, it is wrong for the legislature to require this court, to compel this court as a matter of law to impose a mandatory life sentence on an individual who hasn't killed, attempted to kill or intended to kill. And, again, this is an issue that would have significant impact if it were granted. But we're certainly preserving that issue.

Secondly, with respect --

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor the sentencing hearing down in Brunswick, Georgia, in connection with the Ahmaud Arbery murder case, these three men convicted of murder.

Let me get quick reaction from Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Criminal Defense Attorney, former Mayor of Baltimore. Stephanie, this going to go on for quite a while, and what they're trying to get is some sort of parole in addition to what potentially could be mandatory life in jail.

RAWLINGS-BLAKE: As I said before, you know, they have to do what they have to do. There is a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years. They are going to try every -- I don't want to say trick in the book, but they're going to try every legal maneuver they can to get the judge to consider parole or even a lighter sentence. You hear the judge -- I mean, the lawyer now talking about the unfairness of -- or the lack of justice in the minimum sentence and the judge is clearly not hearing it. You're going to hear more of that as the judge -- as the lawyers do their best to get their clients some leniency this morning.

BLITZER: We'll monitor this hearing and update our viewers obviously as to what's going on. Stephanie, thank you very much.

Other important news we're following right now, any moment now, President Biden will speak on the December jobs report. We're going to have live coverage. You're looking at live pictures coming in from the White House right now. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: Any moment now, President Biden will address the nation from the state dining room. You're looking at live pictures coming in. You see the lectern there. The president will be speaking about the December jobs report that was released by the U.S. Labor Department earlier this morning. It was lower than analysts predicted, a lot lower, yet this, the unemployment rate also dropped to only 3.9 percent. That's good news. We're going to bring you live what the president has to say once he starts speaking. Stand by for that.

In the meantime, we're also following a fast moving winter storm that is expected to cause widespread disruptions today and tomorrow across the northeast.


Over 40 million people are under winter weather alerts right now, with up to a foot of snow in some areas. The storm already has hammered parts of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, where a 20-car pileup on the Western Kentucky parkway left drivers stranded for hours. Boston has already shut down its schools after several inches blanketed their streets, creating hazardous road conditions.

The severe weather is also causing, once again, major headaches for air travelers. More than 2,000 flights already have been canceled today. Airlines say the continued impact of the omicron variant is also fueling major staffing shortages.

Let's go to our Aviation Correspondent Pete Muntean. He's live over at Reagan National Airport, just outside Washington, D.C. There was a lot of snow here in the D.C. area as well. What is the latest as far as flights are concerned?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, cancelations nationwide today have already exceeded the cancelations for the full day, just yesterday. Look at the numbers from FlightAware, 2,300 flights canceled nationwide today, another 1,200 flights delayed. Travelers really can't catch a break here because the airlines can't catch a break. Of course, winter weather, a huge factor here in places like LaGuardia, in Boston, in Denver. But also because of these sheer high numbers of workers at airlines who are calling out sick because they have become either exposed to coronavirus or they have become infected with COVID.

Southwest Airlines really leads the pack here in the number of cancelations, canceling one in every five flights today, same for the last few days. Its strategy is to try and get more workers to show up, incentivizing flight attendants by offering them double their normal pay if they pick up extra trips for the rest of the month.

Different strategy at Alaska Airlines, it says it is trimming its schedule, pulling it back, by about 10 percent for the rest of the month, says it simply needs a price reset on its operation. It's canceled about 16 percent of all of its flights over the last few weeks.

This all amounts to a huge problem for airlines, Wolf, as it's going on for a couple of weeks, going back two weeks to Christmas Eve. You total up all the cancelations, more than 27,000 flight cancelations nationwide. A bit of a silver lining here, Wolf, this is typically a time one when flight numbers and passenger levels go down a little bit because we're through the holidays, but still averaging 1.5 million people flying every day. Big inconvenience for automatic those all those folks, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly. Pete Muntean doing an excellent job for us over at Reagan National Airport, thank you very, very much.

And, once again, any moment now, President Biden will speak about the December jobs report. You're looking at live pictures coming in from the White House right now. We'll have live coverage when we come back.



BLITZER: While the United States works to rebuild the economy hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, a record number of low wage employees quit their jobs, most of them are looking for higher pay and better benefits.

Our Business and Politics Correspondent Vanessa Yurkevich spoke with some of those employees. Vanessa, you've done a lot of excellent reporting on this. Tell us what you're hearing.

VANESSA YURKEVICH, CNN BUSINESS AND POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, month after month, we are seeing a record number of Americans that are quitting their jobs. And when you dig into the numbers, we're finding that these are low wage workers, people who work in retail, hospitality, warehouses.

We spoke to one hospitality worker who quit her job over the summer. She was a barback at a bar right there in Washington, D.C. She made about $5.05 an hour, that's with tipped wages. She says she simply could not rely on being able to get enough money to support her and to support her family that she hopes to have one day. She decided that she needed to quit to find something else. Here is how she is describing this movement, this momentum of these workers quitting.


IFEOMA, EZIMAKO, QUIT HER JOB: People say it is a resignation. To me, it is not a resignation, it is a revolution. We're finally realizing our worth.


YURKEVICH: And so many of these workers are leaving their jobs because they simply feel like they have more options. They're not necessarily quitting and sitting out of the labor force. They're job hopping. And, Wolf, we saw that in today's jobs report. Look at the unemployment rate, 3.9 percent. That's a pandemic low.

So, the worker now feels empowered to be able to find whatever job works best for them. And that's why we're seeing so many of these low- wage workers hoping to find better paying jobs out there because businesses right now, they are short employees and they are really relying on people getting out into the job market and being able to get the job that they're looking for, hoping that these businesses can go ahead and hire as many workers as they can right now, because, Wolf, they're pretty desperate for help at this point.

BLITZER: And very quickly, Vanessa, the president is about to speak any moment now. What do you think the workers want to hear most from the federal government?

YURKEVICH: Well, the workers that I've spoken to, they are really pushing for a federal minimum wage. They believe that $15 an hour is the baseline. That woman who you heard from just there, she was making $5 an hour without tips.


She said that is simply not good enough. She says that $15 an hour at a minimum would be a great way for her to be able to feel comfortable with what she is taking home every single day. Wolf?

BLITZER: Vanessa, thanks very much and to our viewers, thanks for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. I'll be back at 6:00 p.m. Eastern in the Situation Room. At this hour with my friend Kate Bolduan, starts right now.