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Today: Sentencing for Convicted Murderer Alex Murdaugh; Crews Prepare to Begin Replacing Track, Excavating Dirt in Ohio; Powerful Storm Pummels South with Hail, High Winds, Tornadoes; Suspect Accused of Targeting Jewish Officials Due in Court. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired March 03, 2023 - 06:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The likes of Miles Davis and Art Blakey. That's Shorter on stage with Santana in the late 1980s. He won 12 Grammys over the course of his career, dating back to the 1950s. Wayne Shorter was 89 years old.


All right. Thanks for joining me. I'm Christine Romans. Have a wonderful weekend, everybody and a great rest of your day. CNN THIS MORNING starts right now.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Guilty verdict. Signed by the forelady, 3/2/23.

CREIGHTON WATERS, LEAD PROSECUTOR: And we had no doubt that, if we had a chance to present our case in a court of law, that they would see through the one last con that Alex Murdaugh was trying to pull. And they did, and we're so grateful for that.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Well, wow. What a night.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: That was fast, huh?


HARLOW: So fast. What a night. We'll get into all of it.

Good morning, everyone. It is Friday. We are glad you're with us.

It took that jury --

LEMON: No time.

HARLOW: -- less than three hours --

LEMON: Gosh.

HARLOW: -- to reach a verdict. Alex Murdaugh found guilty of murdering his own wife and son. Just hours from now, the sentencing. Plus this.


DAVID LANGSTON, SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA RESIDENT: It just came up. Twenty seconds later, it was gone. Total chaos. Wind -- I mean, glass breaking out everywhere. First tornado I've ever been in.


LEMON: What is with this weather lately? Tornadoes ripping through Texas and also Louisiana, as well. And the severe weather threat isn't over yet for millions of Americans. We have correspondents live on the ground.

We also have this for you.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm begging you, by the grace of God, please, get our people out of here!


COLLINS: You can hear the outrage and desperation. It's boiling over in East Palestine, Ohio, as families are demanding to evacuated or relocated from their own hometown. A town they say is no longer safe, a month after that toxic train derailment.

HARLOW: But first, in just a couple of hours, disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh will be sentenced after a jury dealt a swift blow and convicted him of murdering his wife and son.

Eleven jurors deliberated for less than three hours before pronouncing Murdaugh guilty. He now faces a potential life sentence behind bars. The prosecution team praising the justice system after the ruling was handed down.


ALAN WILSON, SOUTH CAROLINA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Their voice was heard tonight, and justice was brought for them. We can't bring them back, but we can bring them justice.

Today's verdict proves that no one -- no one, no matter who you are in society -- is above the law.


HARLOW: That is the attorney general of South Carolina. Let's go to South Carolina where our Dianne Gallagher is live.

You've been covering this trial. Dianne, wow. Beyond a reasonable doubt guilty in less than three hours.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Unanimous decision by those 12 jurors taking less than three hours.

And what you heard the attorney general talking about there, accountability. The fact that no one is above the law. That's the reason why there were already members of the public lined up outside the courthouse to get a chance to see Alex Murdaugh be sentenced for killing his wife and son.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Guilty verdict. Verdict, guilty. Verdict, guilty. Verdict, guilty.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Alex Murdaugh, a scion from a prominent local family of lawyers and solicitors found guilty of murdering his wife Maggie and son Paul after just three hours of jury deliberations.

WATERS: It doesn't matter how much money you have, or people think you have. It doesn't matter what you think, how prominent you are. If you do wrong, if you break the law, if you murder, then justice will be done in South Carolina.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): The jury was seen with their heads down, never looking in Murdaugh's direction as the verdict was read. The prominent former attorney's only living son, Buster, was present in the courtroom while the guilty verdict was read, appearing at times to wipe tears from his eyes.

After the guilty verdict came down, the judge denied a motion from the defense asking for a mistrial and to set aside the verdict.

JUDGE CLIFTON NEWMAN, SOUTH CAROLINA CIRCUIT COURT: The evidence of guilt is overwhelming. I deny the motion.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): The prosecution indicated they'll be seeking a life sentence without the possibility of parole, sparing him the death penalty. The case wrapped up earlier Thursday with the defense's closing arguments, attempting one last time to poke holes in the state's case.

JIM GRIFFIN, ALEX MURDAUGH'S DEFENSE ATTORNEY: The theory is that he slaughtered his wife and son to distract from an impending financial investigation. But he puts himself in the middle of a murder investigation, and he puts himself in the spotlight of a media firestorm.


GALLAGHER (voice-over): And further slamming the investigation.

GRIFFIN: We believe that we've shown conclusively that SLED failed miserably in investigating this case.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): The jury was unswayed by this defense, favoring the prosecution's argument that Murdaugh was the only one with the motive, means, and opportunity to kill his wife and son.

JOHN MEADORS, PROSECUTOR: He did it. Nobody else did it. Nobody else did do it.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Over the roughly six-week trial, the prosecution presented its case, featuring testimony from 61 witnesses with phone forensics and extensive evidence of Murdaugh's financial misdeeds.

WILSON: Our criminal justice system worked tonight. It gave a voice to Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.


GALLAGHER: And that is what the members of the public who are already here want to see. They want to see that sentencing, which is scheduled to begin around 9:30 this morning.

The state saying they are not going to seek the death penalty. But they are going to seek life in prison without parole. The judge can make that determination anywhere between 30 years and that life sentence for those murder charges.

Again, people essentially just wanting to see this, Poppy.

Alex Murdaugh didn't really make any sort of movements when he was found guilty. When they read those verdicts out, he just sort of shook his head, had a blank face, and briefly sort of mouthed some words to his son, Buster. But that was it. We'll see if we have that same reaction this morning when he is sentenced. We do expect there to be family victim impact statements, as well.

HARLOW: I was just going ask that. That is always a very powerful and important thing to see.

Dianne, thank you very much.

LEMON: I want to bring in now CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson.

Joey, good morning to you. Look, we know you know your way around a courtroom.


LEMON: You never know with these, but is this fast to you? Were you surprised?

JACKSON: It was, indeed. Right? You have a six-week trial. And, of course, the judge constantly instructs the jury as to don't talk about the case. Don't render any conclusions. Don't make any final decisions. Wait until deliberations.

That being said, obviously, the jury, as they're locked into the case, listening to the testimony throughout that time, had formulated some firm opinions with respect to what they believe.

Having said that, I didn't think those firm opinions would come back three hours later in a guilty verdict. So it was resounding. It was just a resounding decision that they rejected the narrative of the defense and completely adopted the narrative of the prosecution, at least as to guilt.

COLLINS: Do you think it was a mistake for him to take the stand?

JACKSON: So you know what? I don't think he had a choice, right? Now, we all have choices, of course. But with respect to that answer, let me tell you why.

Remember his denials, denials, denials? Wasn't there. Don't know. Nothing to see here.

So when they got evidence, which would suggest that he was there, not only the cell-phone data, not only the car data, but remember the video where everyone said, Hey, that's your voice. I think the defense made the calculation that he needed to explain himself.

And going to explain, you could argue it backfired. Because he lied just about everyone in his life. So the jury could conclude, hey, you know what? You lied to your partners. You lie to your family. You looked us in the eye, just like them, and you lied to us.

HARLOW: One of the things that will be interesting as we look ahead to sentencing in a few hours is whether the judge considers mitigating factors or aggravating factors. Can you explain to our viewers what those are and how that could change 30 years to life?

JACKSON: Absolutely. So I'll answer it in a short and a long way. The short way is I don't think the judge is going to consider any mitigation. I think we have a situation here where the jury has rendered a verdict.

Remember what the judge does. Throughout the trial, the judge is a referee, ensuring that you have a fair trial, ensuring that justice is done. Once the jury renders a decision and says you're guilty, all bets are off.

That judge now has to act, right, as a proxy of the state to administer justice. I think, Poppy, that justice will be administered in a life sentence. That's my view.

Now, in terms of aggravating factors, I mean --

HARLOW: Which could increase one's sentence.

JACKSON: Yes. I mean, look, the nature and gravity of the defense -- of the offense, excuse me, with respect to his conduct, I mean, that's aggravating alone. You kill your wife and your son, and you do it in such a graphic, horrific terrible way? That's aggravating.

Now, you could say mitigation is his opioid addition.


JACKSON: Mitigation is his service to his community all of his life. Mitigation was the fact that he was a lawyer. Nonsense.

I think in a situation like this, it comes down to what is just, what is appropriate, what is right. And I think the law allows for a life sentence. You took two lives. I think he'll be doing, potentially, multiple life sentences.

LEMON: I think people can't wait to hear. Obviously, you're lined up outside the courtroom to the sentencing. But I think people -- I want to hear from the jury. I'd like to know, from their guiding, did they take a poll initially? Did everyone say guilty, guilty, guilty? And they're like, Oh, we got it. Let's just move on.

JACKSON: You know what, Don? To that point, I wonder. Because the biggest thing, if you speak to most people who follow this -- and I would agree. The motive was kind of a disconnect.


LEMON: Right.

JACKSON: Was the motive based on his financial motivation, and that's why you killed your family? In my view, to your point, Don, in speaking to the jurors, I want to know whether they even cared. Like, they just got to the meat and potatoes.

We find the evidence shows you did this. I don't care why you did it or what your rationale was. We are going to make sure we conclude that you're accountable.

And so, yes, I'm interested in hearing what they have to say, too.

LEMON: Think you, Joey Jackson.

JACKSON: Of course.

LEMON: Appreciate it. Lots more on this, obviously, here on CNN THIS MORNING. Next hour, we're going to be joined by Eric Bland. Eric Bland is representing Gloria Satterfield's family. She is the housekeeper who died on the Murdaugh property back in 2018. What he and the Satterfield family think of the verdict. That's coming up.

COLLINS: And as we wait for that sentencing hearing that's happening this morning, there is outrage, fear, and just plain desperation that is coming to a head in East Palestine during a town hall last night.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am begging you, by the grace of God, please get our people out of here!


COLLINS: Those are residents of East Palestine, speaking to officials for Norfolk Southern. These families are demanding to be relocated from their own homes at this emotional meeting. They say they're offended [SIC] their kids -- they're afraid their

kids are going to get cancer. They don't feel safe living in their own town anymore after a train that was loaded with those toxic chemicals crashed and burned a month ago.

Last night the train company's representative tried to reassure residents, but instead, really just got an earful.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have said we're very sorry for what happened. We feel horrible about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Evacuate us! Evacuate us! We're going to get sick!


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a plan. We're ready to start tomorrow morning at 6 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're going to leave! We're still in it!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to clean up this town.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You should have done it right the first time.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you care about us, get our grandkids out of here, now! Get my children out! Get us out!


COLLINS: You can just hear the frustration in their voices.

Miguel Marquez is live in East Palestine, Ohio. Miguel, you've been covering this. You know, we heard from the train company's representative there. He's not actually the CEO of the company, I should note.

He said that they were ready to start removing that track because, obviously, they want to excavate the contaminated dirt that's underneath it. That was supposed to happen at 6 a.m. It's now 6:12. Has it started yet?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it probably has. But it has been going on for quite some time. And we are as close as you can get to the derailment right now. And they're remediating one area behind us.

And then I can see lots of personnel on the other side of the tracks there. In fairness, they have been here since this derailment occurred.

The way this is going to happen, this is a plan signed off on by the EPA. Norfolk Southern is going to -- There's at least two -- two tracks that go through this area where the derailment happened. They're going to pull up the Southern end of it. They're going to -- they're going to remove those tens of thousands of tons of toxic soil under those Southern tracks. They're going to replace it with fresh earth. And they're going to put those tracks back on. They're going to do the same thing on the North side of those tracks.

The other thing the EPA is going to force them to do is test the air for, and the area for dioxins. This is something that residents, you know, they are upset. They want certainty. They want answers. And all of those things are hard to come by.

But this -- the dioxins, possible chemicals, harmful chemicals that were created by the fire from all the other chemicals that burned in that train.

And then the other thing happening right now is the NTSB is starting to dig more into this investigation. They're looking at the tank cars themselves. They're now issuing an advisory to other freight carriers.

Because when that fired happened, and you had those cars filled with vinyl chloride, it got so hot the covering of the valve that was meant vent the car, that melted. It was made of aluminum. That melted, blocking them from being able to vent, which obviates the entire reason for the valve itself. It was supposed to be a release valve.

That meant that they had to do an emergency venting of those -- of those cars which created even a bigger problem for the air and for residents here.

We expect to see even more work here along the tracks as the day goes on now, that they have that plan in front of them. It is clear that they will -- they will stay very busy. Norfolk Southern saying it will be by the end of April when this work will be done.

Back to you. [06:15:06]

COLLINS: Wow. That's almost two months away. I know the CEO is going to be on the Hill testifying next week. Miguel Marquez, that track removal is happening this morning. We'll check back in with you. Thank you.

HARLOW: Also, this very powerful storm hitting parts of the South, stirring up large tornadoes. Our Ed Lavandera is standing by in Texas, Carlos Suarez in Louisiana. What they are seeing on the ground is next.





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where is it going?



LEMON: I mean, my goodness. Look at that. A powerful storm packing a triple threat of large hail, damaging winds, and tornadoes tearing through the South.




LEMON: Listen to that. That's storm sirens. They were heard blaring in Dallas. Wind gusts reached over 70 miles per hour, knocking out power to thousands of customers and forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights.

A twister also touched down in Louisiana. Louisiana State University campus there was damaged, and some homes and businesses were destroyed. Nearly four million people now under a new tornado watch across the Mississippi River Valley.

We have team coverage all across the South. Carlos Suarez is in Shreveport, Louisiana. But first, we turn to CNN's Ed Lavandera. He's in Little Elm, Texas, this morning.

My, oh my. Ed, what is -- Look behind you.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This was probably the most extensive damage we've seen because of the storm last night, Don. This was the facade of La Azteca Meat Market, which collapsed last night in those high winds that you were talking about, crushing about a half dozen cars underneath.

But by and large, you know, this storm system which was massive, about 500 miles long, which stretched from San Antonio all the way into Southeast Oklahoma, you know, moved through this area very quickly with those high, intense winds.

But by and large, you know, most of the area in this North Texas area unscathed by this storm. So there are still over about 100,000 customers without power because of these high winds knocking over power lines or, you know, blowing up transformers, that sort of thing. That's the kind of issues that people are dealing with this morning.

The good news is no injuries, no deaths being reported because of this storm. But it's the sheer size. It's the second severe storm outbreak we've seen just this week.

We were in Oklahoma earlier this week, where we saw those intense, high winds. So really, this storm serving as a reminder that the spring storm season is off to a very early start, Don.

LEMON: Ed covering it for us from Texas this morning. Ed Lavandera, thank you.

HARLOW: Wow. OK. So let's go to Louisiana now, Shreveport, where Carlos Suarez is.

Carlos, good morning to you. I know, you know, the sun is not up yet. But what's the damage like?

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy and Don, good morning.

That tornado that hit here was on the ground for under a minute. And in that time, it damaged a number of homes and businesses.

We are in a neighborhood here in Shreveport where that tornado moved through and where we're seeing some of the most significant damage.

It took out what we believe to be an insurance company, a business out here. You can see the folks already started to clear up some of this debris. It took out that sign. They've already got a tarp out here.

Now the most serious damage that we found on our drive early this morning was this laundromat out here. You can see what we're talking about. Just the roof of this place was taken out. The front side of this business fell on these three cars.

That tornado, we're told, again, was on the ground for under a minute. The folks that were interviewed out here told us it was anywhere between 30 to 40 seconds.

Now, we -- we heard from someone that was inside of this laundromat. He was telling folks, look, it's too windy out here. The weather did not look good. All of this happened right before that tornado hit. Here's what he told us.


LANGSTON: That's when the wind started picking up. This lady said, "My babies are in the car." And she wanted me to help her. And I said, "Let's go."

But then all of a sudden, the wind got so bad. I said, "No, ma'am, don't go out." And that's her car underneath that sign. If we had gone out there, I mean, we would have been hit by that sign.


SUAREZ: Similar to Ed, the good news at this hour is there are no reports of any serious injuries here in Shreveport. In this neighborhood alone, according to the power company, well over 1,000 folks are waking up in the dark.

HARLOW: Carlos Suarez for us in Shreveport, Louisiana. Thank you for the reporting. COLLINS: Also this morning, the man who the FBI says threatened to

kill Jewish government officials in Michigan is going to face a judge in just a matter of hours.

We're going to speak to a state representative, Samantha Steckloff, who told by the FBI she was one of the targets.



COLLINS: New York City this morning as we are following developments out of Michigan. The man who is accused of threatening to kill Jewish state officials in Michigan is making his first court appearance today.

We broke the news on the program yesterday, as federal authorities say that Jack Carpenter first made the threats online; had plans to go to Michigan to actually carry out those ideas, those threats.

The FBI says that he wrote posts supporting an anti-government extremist movement that is classified as domestic terrorism. CNN's Omar Jimenez has our report.


OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The threats were allegedly posted on the Internet from out of state by suspect Jack Eugene Carpenter III: "I'm heading back to Michigan now threatening to carry out the punishment of death to anyone that is Jewish in the Michigan government if they don't leave or confess, and now."

Later adding, "Any attempt to subdue me will be met with deadly force in self-defense."

Court documents show his mother told investigators he had three handguns, a 12-gauge shotgun, and two rifles.

A law enforcement source tells CNN among those specifically targeted, Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel. She says, "The FBI has confirmed I was a target of the heavily armed defendant in this matter."

She's the second high-ranking Michigan official to be targeted in recent years, after a plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer was foiled in 2020.

This time it was allegedly about more than just one official.

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: This is right in the wheelhouse of what the FBI and Director Wray have told us they think is the most dangerous and most concerning threat that they face on the counterterrorist side.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): The suspect allegedly posted a declaration of sovereignty, claiming a country he called New Israel, according to the FBI, encompassing a nine-mile radius around his home.

The FBI says he believed, because of this, no one in the government or law enforcement had authority over him, tweeting, "Any crime that's been claimed I committed I am: 1, immune from prosecution anyway; 2, all the evidence is fake."

This isn't the first time law enforcement has seen a claim like this.


JIMENEZ (voice-over): Javed Ali is a former senior counter-terrorism official for the U.S. government.

ALI: Whether this threat gets manifested by single individuals posting online, like in this particular case; or larger groups come together like they did here in Michigan with the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer; to the extreme end with the insurrection of January 6. We've seen all these different models of what this threat can look like. And this isn't going away any time soon.


JIMENEZ: Now this suspect was an employee at the University of Michigan for ten years until December 2021. He claims he was fired for refusing to take experimental medication.