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Supreme Court Examines COVID Mandates; CDC Director Under Fire; Ahmaud Arbery's Killers Set For Sentencing. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 07, 2022 - 13:00   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Top of the hour here on this Friday afternoon. I'm Erica Hill, in for Ana Cabrera.

And we are at this hour monitoring a South Georgia courtroom where, any moment now, the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery will be sentence. Court set to return from a lunch break, any moment now returning.

Travis McMichael, his father, Greg McMichael, and William Bryan all facing a minimum of life in prison. In brief, but powerful statements just a short time ago, Ahmaud Arbery's family made it clear they believe his killer should serve the full sentence with no chance for parole.


JASMINE ARBERY, SISTER OF AHMAUD ARBERY: Ahmad is my brother. And I would like to tell you a little about him.

Ahmad had dark skin that glistened in the sunlight like go. He had thick curly hair, and he would often like to twist it. He enjoyed running and had an appreciation for being outdoors.

These are the qualities that made these men assume that Ahmaud was a dangerous criminal and chase him with guns drawn. To me, those qualities reflected a young man full of life and energy who looked like me and the people I love.

MARCUS ARBERY, FATHER OF AHMAUD ARBERY: Not only did they lynch my son in broad daylight, but they killed him while he was doing what he loved than anything, running.

That's when he felt most alive, most free. And they took all that from him.

When I close my eyes, I see his execution in my mind.

WANDA COOPER-JONES, MOTHER OF AHMAUD ARBERY: And, Your Honor, we loved him back. He was messy. He sometimes refuse to wear socks or take good care of his good clothing. I wish he would have cut and cleaned his toenails before he went out for that jog that day.

I guess he would have if he knew he would be murdered.

My family is going to miss Ahmad. We're going to miss his jokes, his impersonations, his warm smile. These men deserve the maximum sentence for their crimes. Ahmaud never said a word to them. He never threatened them. He just wanted to be left alone.


HILL: CNN national correspondent Dianne Gallagher joining us now from Brunswick, Georgia, outside the courthouse.

Dianne, gut wrenching. I mean, these were short, but such powerful statements for Ahmaud Arbery's family. Walk us through what the judge will be deciding today.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Erica, the sentence that goes with the charges that these three men were convicted of is life in prison.

The judge will have to decide whether or not this is life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving 30 years or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

And we should point out that that possibility of parole would be decided by a parole board three decades from now. But just that opportunity is what's being decided today. There are lesser charges that also will have sentences handed down by this judge today, but these are the main ones.

And this has been the focus of Ahmaud Arbery's family today in those emotional, just gut-wrenching impact statements that they delivered after the state went through its case once again, basically, sort of explaining why it was requesting what it was.

Now, the state has requested that the judge hand down a sentence of life in prison with no parole for both of the McMichaels and life in prison with the possibility of parole for William "Roddie" Bryan.

We did here before the lunch break from the attorney for Travis McMichael. And he essentially tried to paint a picture of somebody who had done a lot of good in their life, but then did something wrong, and a narrative essentially of redemption.


Take a listen.


BOB RUBIN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY FOR TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: The state contends that 99 good acts don't overcome one bad act. And, of course, legally, that's true. Mr. McMichael is now a convicted felon.

But 99 good acts do weigh in this court's consideration, do factor into what choice this court is going to make when sentencing Mr. McMichael. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GALLAGHER: Now, the judge has just reentered the courtroom to come back for this hearing from that lunch break.

We still have to hear from the attorneys for Greg McMichael and for William "Roddie" Bryan. And, again, what they're arguing for here, Erica, is for that opportunity to potentially be granted parole after three decades. Of course, Greg McMichael is 66 years old. So any life sentence is essentially a life sentence for him, whether that opportunity for parole exists or not, due to Georgia state law.

And, of course, this isn't the end for anybody here. The Arbery family talked about how difficult it was for them to reach this day, something they had been anticipating because they felt like it was a moment of justice in a moment -- almost two years of pain that they have experienced since their son, their brother was murdered.

But all of these attorneys have said they plan to appeal the convictions. And, next month here in Brunswick, there will be a federal trial on those hate crime charges against those three men for killing Ahmaud.

HILL: Yes, one long step, but, as you point out, Dianne, much more to come.

Appreciate it, Dianne Gallagher. We will check in with you as we learn more.

Again, we're monitoring the courtroom. Those are live pictures that you're looking at on your screen. What could potentially happen here?

Joining us to discuss, Bob Bianchi, criminal defense attorney and a former head prosecutor in New Jersey, and CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams.

Elliot, these statements. I mean, I have to admit I was watching them earlier this morning. I couldn't tear away. They did get you right in your gut. They were emotional. They humanized Ahmaud Arbery. They talked about him as a son, as a brother. And they also, interestingly, directly attacked the dissents, specifically what we heard from his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, saying: I'm sure if my son had known he was going to be murdered that day, he would have trimmed his toenails.

That was really something.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Look, and there's a reason why in the law, Erica, they're called victim impact statements. They are meant to have an impact not just on the judge or on everybody in the courtroom, but the public watching and humanizing the individual who lost their life that day.

Now, the interesting thing about the toenails statement, which came up and was this graphic, frankly, out-of-line statement that the defense attorney had made in her closing argument, is really interesting, because the defendants never would have seen his feet on the day of the trial.

Yet, she's still -- pardon me -- on the day of the crime. It's something that came out from Ahmaud Arbery's autopsy. And so it was -- I don't know if Mr. Arbery's mother knew this, but it was a bit of a dig on the defense, and quite an aggressive one, and I think a very appropriate one, because it was something that should never have come up in trial.

The judge must have known that. And so what we're going to see today is now the defense's response. We saw these -- the testimony that sort of aggravated the sentencing. Now we will see what their argument is for a lower sentence.

HILL: And just real quickly, like, how much did impact you think those statements have?

WILLIAMS: Look, they're quite significant. Any time a victim's mother is going to take the -- no one ought to bury their child in any sort of circumstance here.

And it's hard to watch those videos and not see a profound impact on the court. Now, to be clear, the judge doesn't really have a lot of latitude here. They're going to get life sentences regardless. So now it's a question of whether you're giving a 65- and a 50-year-old man 30 years in prison or 80 years in prison -- 50 years in prison or whatever.

HILL: Right.

WILLIAMS: So, it's not a huge range. But I think it would have had an impact.

HILL: Bob, as we look at that, right, the possibility here as the judge weighs whether there will be a possibility of parole, there is age, as we know.

Also, I thought it was interesting when we just heard from Travis McMichael's attorney -- Dianne just played some of that sound for us -- touting these 99 good acts, right, and one bad act. And he was saying that can come into play in sentencing.

Based on what you have seen throughout the trial and even today, what do you expect from the judge, Bob?

ROBERT BIANCHI, FORMER PROSECUTOR: Well, first of all, the defense lawyer is right.

There are things called aggravating and mitigating factors that are in the sentencing code that judges are allowed to use when trying to determine a sentence like this. And the fact led a person that a law- abiding life, that they're not likely to have the offense reoccur, the need for deterrence can be justified by a 30-year sentence, as opposed to life without parole, are all legitimate arguments for the defense to make.

[13:10:03] My guess here, Erica, having been a former homicide prosecutor and knowing the facts of this case inside and out, is, there is no question about the fact that Travis McMichael ,in my mind, is going to get life without parole.

Now, he is the person that was found guilty of malice murder. The other ones weren't. So you can expect that the lawyers are going to say, well, you should treat those cases differently than life without parole. The father is going to argue that it should just be a life sentence.

In my opinion, I think the judge is going to give him a life without parole sentence as well, because he was the one that initiated and started this whole encounter in the first place.

With regard to William "Roddie" Bryan, interestingly and tactically very smart by the prosecutor, they are not seeking a life without parole, because his involvement in the case is even more distant than the other two.

So what the prosecutor basically did is say to the judge, look, we're being reasonable with the life settings with regard to William "Roddie" Bryan, but with respect to the other two actors, the father and the son, the person who actually shot him and the father who actually initiated this encounter, Your Honor, they need to serve the rest of their lives without parole.

So I expect that the judge is pretty much going to rule pursuant to how the prosecutor sees the case, Erica.

HILL: All right. And we will be watching for that.

Bob Bianchi, Elliot Williams, appreciate it. Thank you both.

A mixed December jobs report prompting a forceful defense from President Biden a short time ago. The U.S. added 199,000 jobs last month. Now, that number came in far below expectations. The unemployment rate, however, dipped to a low 3.9 percent.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The sharpest one-year drop in unemployment in United States history, the first time the unemployment rate has been under 4 percent in the first year of a presidential term in 50 years, 3.9 percent unemployment rate, years faster than experts said we'd be able to do it.

And we have added 6.4 million new jobs since January of last year.


HILL: The president not just touting all those gains, but also calling out Republicans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BIDEN: Now I hear Republicans say today that my talking about the strong record shows that I don't understand, I don't understand. A lot of people are still suffering, they say.

Well, they are. Or that I'm not focused on inflation. Malarkey. They want to talk down the recovery because they voted against the legislation that made it happen. They voted against the tax cuts for middle-class families. They voted against the funds we needed to reopen our schools, to keep police officers and firefighters on the job, to lower health care premiums.

They voted against the funds we're now using to buy COVID booster shots and more antiviral pills. I refuse to let them stand in the way of this recovery. And now my focus is on keeping this recovery strong and durable, notwithstanding Republican obstructionism.


HILL: Justin Wolfers is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan.

Good to have you back with us.

So, all right, first, right -- we had the president's comments. First, let's get your take on this jobs report. What do you make of it? It is a little bit of a mixed bag.


We should never state too from any one month's report. But this month, we got job growth about 200,000, which is roughly what you would expect in a normal month of a normal economy. But this is not a normal month. And this is not a normal economy. We lost millions of jobs during the COVID recession.

And we're meant to be getting them back fast and a little bit faster than this. So realize these jobs numbers come from the pre-Omicron days. This is very early in December. And so what this tells us is that the economy is heading into trouble. We know Omicron is causing a lot of disruptions, but it's not charging into that weakness. It's dawdling in.

And so there's real reason to be somewhat concerned about the next few months.

HILL: So it sounds like you're saying somewhat concerned, but don't panic.

I have to ask you too, we saw revisions for October and November. Do you anticipate that we're going to see revisions upward again for these December job numbers, so it could ultimately be a slightly better picture, even pre-Omicron?

WOLFERS: I think that's right.

And just to explain to your viewers, the numbers that the BLS releases are just an early estimate based on those businesses that have bothered to return their surveys on time. And during particularly disruptive times, it can be hard to guess what the late surveys will look like. And it's turned out through much of the last year that the first estimates have been a little bit too pessimistic.

And so there's some reason to think that today's disappointing number might be maybe merely disappointing, rather than very disappointing, once we get the final data.

HILL: I guess it all depends on the modifier there.

Justin Wolfers, really appreciate you joining us today, as always. Thank you.

WOLFERS: My pleasure.

HILL: This just into CNN.

The date for the State of the Union is set. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi official invited President Biden to deliver the address to Congress on March 1. In a letter to the president, she says -- quote -- "I am writing to invite you to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, March 1, to share your vision for the state of the union."


Also developing right now, the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments on President Biden's COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates. We will have details on that just ahead.

Plus, the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, on the defensive amid the confusion over the agency's messaging and guidance. What she's saying now.

And this hour, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in court, after prosecutors declined to pursue a forcible touching charge.



HILL: As the nation faces an Omicron surge, the Supreme Court right now is hearing oral arguments on President Biden's COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates.

CNN's Jessica Schneider joining us.

So, Jess, these arguments for and against those mandates, these are actually coming just three days before the administration was set to begin enforcing mandates for large employers. So what's happening at this hour inside the court? What are we hearing?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, we're three-and-a-half-hours into these very lengthy arguments. And what we're seeing is that very familiar conservative-liberal split between the justices.

So we're hearing the three liberal justices express near outrage that the power of these federal agencies to implement vaccine mandates is even being questioned, since they say we're in the midst of this global pandemic.

On the other side, the conservative justices are really looking at these mandates with a lot more skepticism. And they're saying, while states might have the power to enact such a mandate, the agencies can only act when Congress explicitly gives them the power. And there's skepticism about whether Congress has done that.

These conservative justices led by Chief Justice John Roberts, they have repeatedly reined in agency power. It was just a few months ago in August that they told the Biden administration that the CDC couldn't keep an eviction moratorium that was enacted because of the pandemic, just saying that the CDC didn't have the power, so a similar argument here.

Here's the chief justice explaining his skepticism on this.


JOHN ROBERTS, CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE U.S. SUPREME COURT: You're saying that Congress acted. Don't complain that Congress hasn't done anything. And that that was 50 years ago that you're saying Congress acted.

I don't think it had COVID in mind. That was almost closer to the Spanish Flu than it is to today's problem. Now, I understand the idea that agencies are more expert than Congress. I understand the idea that they can move more quickly than Congress.

But this is something that the federal government has never done before, right, mandated vaccine coverage?


SCHNEIDER: And the arguments right now still ongoing, and these justices will likely have to act fairly quickly here.

The OSHA mandate is set to go into effect in just a few days, Monday. That's the mandate that requires employers with 100 or more employees to mandate a vaccine or mandate their employees get testing.

Erica, the challengers really want the justices to stop these mandates so they can continue to be challenged in the lower courts. So we could see a decision here from the Supreme Court fairly quickly. We will just have to wait and see, looming -- that Monday deadline looming here, Erica.

HILL: Yes, it certainly is.

Jessica Schneider, appreciate the update. Thank you.

Well, today, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is defending her work and her leadership, this amid mounting scrutiny over several COVID-19 messaging missteps.

Jeremy Diamond joining us now live from the White House.

So, Jeremy, officials at the CDC and the White House are frustrated. There have been some efforts, including on the part of Dr. Walensky, to try to fix this issue. But where do things stand? How did we get here?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, criticism of the CDC and of Dr. Walensky's leadership has really hit a fever pitch in recent weeks amid those new isolation and quarantine guidelines, and really the messaging mishaps surrounding those guidelines.

There's been a lot of back-and-forth around them. And there's frustration not only here at the White House with the CDC's messaging, but also, I'm told, within the CDC, there's frustration at how Dr. Walensky has gone about issuing those guidelines.

Amid all of this, we have learned that Dr. Walensky has actually undergone media training with a prominent Democratic media consultant, Mandy Grunwald. And, today, Dr. Walensky held her first solo press briefing since undergoing that training.

Here's how she defended her job today.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: We're in an unprecedented time with the speed of Omicron cases rising. And we are working really hard to get information to the American public, and balancing that with the realities that we're all living with.

This is hard, and I am committed and -- to continue to improve as we learn more about the science and to communicate that with all of you.


DIAMOND: But, frankly, it's not just a messaging problem.

One CDC scientist I spoke with said the frustration also stems with the way in which Dr. Walensky and her small circle of aides crafted these guidelines without undergoing some of the rigorous vetting processes that the CDC typically has.

The White House, for now, for its part, they are staying hands-off with this, but as one former senior administration official told me, it's also no secret that frustration from the White House directed at the CDC isn't necessarily a new issue. It's an age-old problem -- Erica.

HILL: Jeremy Diamond, appreciate the reporting. Thank you.

Also with us, Dr. Carlos del Rio. He's executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System.

Dr. del Rio, good to have you with us. As you look at everything that's happening right now, this reporting we just have from Jeremy, do you think the CDC has handled things well? And, specifically, has Dr. Walensky handled this well? What needs to be done, if anything?


DR. CARLOS DEL RIO, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, let me just say that CDC has the most qualified people to deal with this problem from the beginning of the pandemic. And they were initially sidelined, but they were still working incredibly hard. And I know many of them personally.

And I can tell you, they are working as hard as they can. And it is very hard right now, because, as you know, this virus is throwing some very different, difficult curveballs at us.

And what you see as missteps and miscommunications, a lot of times, it's really that you take a decision based on what you know today, and with an evolving pandemic, you wish you knew today what you're going to learn tomorrow.

When Dr. Walensky said, we can lift the mask mandate for everybody who's been vaccinated, we didn't realize that, with Delta, the vaccines would not be as protective and therefore you would still have the possibility of getting infected.

So, then they had to back down and say, well, no, you need to go back to masking. But the reality is, at the moment that the recommendation to take up masking was done, it was the right decision with the information available at that point.

But as the information changes, the recommendations change. And I think that, as a member of the public, is very confusing, but it is also very frustrating. So I feel for the CDC and I feel Dr. Walensky.

I know her personally. I know she's working incredibly hard. I know she's trying to do the best to get us over this pandemic. But at the same time, this is not the best time. This is not the easiest of times. This is very unprecedented.

So, my advice, my advice is just simply to continue trying to do the best possible thing to deal with this pandemic. The pandemic is changing. There's no doubt about that.

HILL: But is what is missing from the messaging? And I ask this because it's a question I have asked a number of times, is, if the science is constantly changing -- and we know that it is, right? You and I talk about this?

Should the CDC, should Dr. Walensky be leading with that every time? Hey, this is what we know today. Just a reminder, the science could change. But, as of today, here's what the science tells us.

Would that help?

DEL RIO: So, this is -- yes, so this is what my advice would be.

I think Dr. Walensky needs to have daily, and if not daily, every other day or every third day, press conferences in which she and the experts talk to the media, not politicians, but the experts talk to the media. And they start by saying, this is what we know today. This is what we don't know. And this is what we're still investigating.

I think the best example of really the ultimate public health communicator that I have met and seen was Dr. Rich Besser when he was the director of the CDC during the 2009 influenza pandemic. And his press conferences, in my mind, are really a model of what a press conference during a pandemic should be.

HILL: So let me ask you quickly. We're a little tight on time.

But some of the former health advisers to this administration, as you likely read, got together. They put out some guidance that there needs to be a change, right, that the strategy needs to be updated for the administration to face this new normal of living with the virus.

The president was asked if COVID is here to say a short time ago. He said no. Then he tried to sort of clarify it a little bit, saying not the virus that we see right now. Is that what's missing from the response? Is it a response that has not continued to evolve?

DEL RIO: I think so.

I think there hasn't been a response that has continued to evolve. And, more importantly, we need to also have an exit ramp. We need to have an exit strategy. What is our goal? Our goal should no longer be zero infections. Our goal should be and was from the beginning to prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

And other than that, if you get infected and you're vaccinated, and if you're boosted and you get a cold, that's OK. We should not be worrying that much more about infections. We really need to worry about long-term consequences. And we need to worry about mortality and hospitalizations.

That's where the focus needs to be. And that's what we should strive to suppress.

HILL: Dr. Carlos del Rio, thanks for joining us this afternoon.

Just ahead, the former Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo said to be arraigned in court any minute after prosecutors declined to pursue a forcible touching charge.

That's next.