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CNN This Morning

Alabama Executes Inmate; Biden Administration Increases Help to Ecuador; Storms Batter New England Coast; Football Unites Americans. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired January 26, 2024 - 08:30   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Change anything?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Maybe for some people. But I think that for a lot of these Republicans, especially in the House, they fear Trump more than they fear not passing a bill.

Also, remember, the conference, you know, has a very, very small majority over there. And it's the complicated issues of Ukraine as well which they really don't want to do. I mean it is a - it's a complex situation. I mean there's a world here where somehow the Congress winds up doing Ukraine and not the border, and the people who are arguing against this deal, without having seen the text, are going to have a lot of explaining to do at that point. So, my advice to the Republicans, take it all. Take the win. You've got Joe Biden on his knees. And I think the American public will reward Republicans, including Donald Trump, if something gets done on immigration right now.

HARLOW: OK. Scott Jennings, thank you. Have a great weekend.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

HARLOW: Also this, Alabama carrying out a first-of-its-kind execution of a convicted murderer. We have new details from those who witnessed it.


REV. JEFF HOOD, SPIRITUAL ADVISOR FOR KENNETH SMITH: And an unbelievable evil was unleashed tonight in Alabama.

I've never ever seen anything like that. That was torture. That was absolute torture. And torture is evil.




REV. JEFF HOOD, SPIRITUAL ADVISOR FOR KENNETH SMITH: It was absolutely horrific. It was the most horrible thing I think I've ever seen.

He popped up on the gurney over and over and over again. He shook the - the whole - the whole gurney. I could hear audible gasps behind me coming from the witness areas.


HARLOW: When the state of Alabama executed death row inmate Kenneth Smith last night with nitrogen gas, it marked a new era in capital punishment because nitrogen gas had, up until last night, never been used to execute anyone in this country.


It did spark international outrage. The U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights says he has, quote, "serious concerns that this novel and untested method of suffocation by nitrogen gas may amount to torture, or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment."

Isabel Rosales is live again for us this morning in Atmore, Alabama, where you have been covering this, leading up to this. You reported yesterday morning on the last-minute plea to the Supreme Court here on 8th Amendment grounds. They did not intervene.

Talk to us about the reaction of what happened last night.

ISABEL ROSALES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, good morning to you.

Let me start with Kenneth Smith's last words before the nitrogen gas started to flow. And here they are, in part. "Tonight, Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards." He's talking about the method of execution here, nitrogen gas. He continues with, "I am leave with love, peace, and light. Thank you for supporting me. Love all of you."

Poppy, we're also getting a clearer understanding of the timeline of events here from witnesses and from a statement from the attorney general. From the moment that the nitrogen gas started to flow, up until his death, that took about 28 minutes. Witnesses say that Smith appeared conscious for several minutes. He struggled in his gurney that he was strapped down to for around two minutes. And then his breathing slowed down.

CNN was the first to speak with his spiritual adviser, Reverend Jeff Hood, who was in that execution chamber. And he was shaken and emotional based on what he saw. He called it absolute torture. He said that the mask was strapped so tightly on Smith's face that there were indentations. He said that it was not painless as state officials would argue -- had argued that it would be, and that Smith was struggling against the gurney, struggling against the mask, gasping, and his face turned colors.

Now, the state has touted this as a success. Governor Kay Ivey says that the execution was lawfully carried out.

Poppy. HARLOW: And what is the - his victim's family saying, before we go, Isabel?

ROSALES: And thank you for asking that, Poppy. That's very important. The family - the family is worried that their mother, Elizabeth Sennett, is going to be overshadowed by this being the first death by nitrogen gas. They want their mother to be remembered as a sweet woman, a preacher's wife, a woman who was caring.

HARLOW: Isabel Rosales, we appreciate your reporting throughout. Thank you.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, President Biden working urgently to step up assistance to Ecuador as the small South American country grapples with a new era of violence. An administration official says they will help -- the help will range from equipment to deploying personnel to help combat gangs, gunmen, and cartels that are now terrorizing the country. As Ecuador's authorities are cracking down on the violence, even the armed forces say they are living in fear.

CNN's David Culver has more.


DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're the fourth in a convoy of what looks to be about four pickup trucks, all of them unmarked, no lights, no sirens, all the officers in plain clothes.

CULVER (voice over): We're with Ecuador's national police force as they're dispatched to a house with suspected ties to terror groups. They won't tell us where exactly we're headed, and they ask us to blur their faces.

CULVER: Shows you the level of concern and fear that exist here right now.

CULVER (voice over): So, we'll keep it vague. We're just outside Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, and headed into one of the most violent areas, Dudan (ph). More than a dozen officers storm what could be mistaken for an abandoned barn, but their intel suggests otherwise. They cuff two men and search the high grass and weeds. On each corner, security cameras strategically positioned. Officers hack them down.

CULVER: As they leave here, we notice even he's carrying some evidence. Looks like a gun and several rounds in that baggie.

CULVER (voice over): This is just one of thousands of raids across Ecuador carried out over the past two weeks. Ecuador's military now deployed to neighborhoods. We went with them.

CULVER: Over here we see two guys who have been detained for now.

CULVER (voice over): Officials arresting more than 3,000 people so far.

Ecuador's latest surge in violence sparked by the suspected prison escape of notorious gang leader Jose Adolfo Macias, known as Fito, reported missing from this massive prison compound on January 7th.

CULVER: If you look over here, this is where officials tell us Fito was being held, possibly is still being held.


They really don't know.

CULVER (voice over): A top military commander telling me the prison system is rife with mismanagement and heavy gang influence. So much so that Fito could still be hiding inside.

Fito's disappearance led President Daniel Noboa to declare a state of emergency, vowing to neutralize terror groups. A day after Naboa's declaration on January 9th, 13 armed men took over a television news studio in Guayaquil. They put guns to the heads of employees, forcing them to the ground, and held up what looked to be sticks of dynamite. Folks watched it all unfold on live tv.

Among them, Camille Gamarra and her husband Diego Giardo (ph). Feeling the unease, Diego decided to pick up their 10-year-old son. But minutes before reaching his school, someone opened fire on the streets. Diego stopped messaging Camille, who was frantically trying to call him. A police colonel eventually answered and told Camille Diego had been shot.

Chaos rocked Ecuador that day, especially in Guayaquil, where barricades went up and streets shut down. This young girl, still in her school uniform, also hit by a stray bullet. The hospital later saying she survived thanks to a security guard who drove her to the emergency room.

A family friend was able to get Camille's son to safety, but Diego died before Camille could get to him.

CAMILLE GAMARRA, HUSBAND KILLED IN ECUADOR VIOLENCE (through translator): I couldn't do a thing. Left sitting here. I couldn't do a thing.

CULVER (voice over): Across town, national police and armed forces stormed the television studio, capturing the gunmen before they could kill any of the hostages.

CULVER: And this is the studio where the terror group entered, and 13 of them.

CULVER (voice over): We saw firsthand the damage left behind.

CULVER: So, this is the studio door. And you can see, and we can count here, one, two, three, four, five, six -- about a half dozen bullet holes.

CULVER (voice over): The day after our visit, in a brazen strike against the government, suspected gang members assassinated the prosecutor investigating that studio takeover.

CULVER: You can see, he's pulling this car over right now.

CULVER (voice over): Police and military now stepping up their efforts, setting up random checkpoints. Every possible hiding place, searched.

CULVER: I just saw one of the soldiers signaling to the other, look at his arm, look at his arm.

CULVER (voice over): They check tattoos for any gang affiliations, and even scroll through people's phones. They also board commuter buses to get intel.

CULVER: He's asking, do they have anything they need to tell them or inform about? He says, we're doing this operation for you all.

CULVER (voice over): Residents here struggle with what's happened to their country over the past few years. They tell me gangs are growing bolder and holding people and their businesses hostages, demanding protection money, known as vacunas (ph).

CULVER: What happens if you don't pay the vacuna (ph), if you don't pay the extortion?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They get a contract killer and kill you. They put explosive outside your store.

CULVER (voice over): The military tries to weed out those responsible, raiding homes like this one, holding the suspects at gunpoint as neighbors, including kids, watch. It's a lot to take in.

CULVER: She says the fact that there are police here, it's comforting. She accepts military, and that there's military now patrolling the streets. What she doesn't like is that it goes into people's homes and is now pouring out onto the street.

CULVER (voice over): But this is war. At least that's how the government here sees it. And they're asking the U.S. for support. Desperate for tactical equipment, ammo, and intel.

CULVER: Why should the U.S. help? Because people will look at this from the U.S. and they'll say, well, that's Ecuador's problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, if you don't help us, probably you will see more people trying to cross the border, because these people that's in the middle of gun fights on their neighborhoods. What would you do?

CULVER: Yes, you're not going to stay there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't want to stay there.


CULVER (voice over): Back on the front lines, after executing their raid, we're reminded of the fear instilled by these gangs, even among law enforcement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I'm going to cover my face.

CULVER (voice over): This officer putting on a ski mask in 90-degree heat and thick humidity before stepping into frame. And yet, beneath those tactical layers, a soft spot. This soldier's not been home in a week, telling us the reason he's fighting is for his little girl. She wrote him a letter in English. "I want you to know that everyone missing you here at home and we want you to return safe and sound. And I ask you to help the country to be a better place. You are number one."

David Culver, CNN, Guayaquil, Ecuador.


HARLOW: Our thanks to David for that reporting. He'll stay on it, of course.

Meantime, back-to-back storms give us a glimpse of the future with climate change.


How one stretch of the East Coast is now part of the new climate reality.

MATTINGLY: And new this morning, King Charles was admitted to a London hospital for a scheduled prostate procedure. The palace revealed last week the king was set to undergoing treatment and said that his condition was benign. A source says Charles visited Princess Kate at the London clinic, who is still recovering from abdominal surgery. We'll keep you posted.

And we'll be right back.


HARLOW: Communities across New England, across the coastline, are getting a glimpse of just how climate change could make coastal storms so much more extreme. Two pretty rare back-to-back storms brought powerful wind, destructive flooding and record high tides to Maine, washing away buildings and the soil, changing a way of life for those who have lived there for centuries.

Our chief climate correspondent Bill Weir joins us from Portland, Maine.


Good morning, Bill.


And what's really striking is when you consider all of this damage, the result of about seven and a half inches of sea level rise over the last century. Scientists telling us to prepare for another 11 inches in the next 25 years. And the people feeling it the most are those who work and love the Gulf of Maine so much.


WEIR (voice over): On a planet warmed to record highs by fossil fuel pollution, the Gulf of Maine is among those corners of earth overheating the fastest. This is driving lobster and cod further offshore, making it harder to make a living off of the sea. But then the warming climate brought another devastating blow this month. Two of them, actually. Back-to-back freakishly wet winter storms that came not from the typical nor 'east but from the south. And at record high tide. A combination that brought down wharves and docks that have been part of the landscape for generations.

WEIR: So this -


WEIR: Is - was what that was there?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that whole building.

WEIR: No way. This is -- that's what's left of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Just generations and generations of stuff. And -

WEIR: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, there's - there's a lot of memory down there.

WEIR (voice over): Meanwhile, in South Portland, the storm surge took three iconic fish shacks built on Willard Beach 136 years ago.

MISHA PRIDE, MAYOR OF SOUTH PORTLAND: Pretty obvious they're gone. You know, if you've never been here before, you might not have a clue.

WEIR: You wouldn't know, right? But that --

PRIDE: And they didn't leave any kind of impression up there either. There's no --

WEIR: No trace, huh?

PRIDE: There's no trace of them whatsoever. So the only impression we have is an emotional impression.

WEIR: Is in here, right?

WEIR (voice over): The storms buried the last high water record, literally.

PRIDE: Down there in the hole is the 1978 blizzard high water mark.

WEIR: Is that right?

PRIDE: That's right. It was covered by sand in the most recent storm.

WEIR (voice over): But all of this is what happens after just seven and a half inches of sea level rise in the last 100 years. And scientists telling Maine to brace for much more in the next 25.

HANNAH BARANES, GULF OF MAINE RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Maine is preparing for a foot and a half of sea level rise by 2050, and four feet by 2100. Mainers are resilient. So, there are people who are experiencing devastating inter-generational loss right now, and almost in the same breath they're recognizing the realities of climate change and saying, how high and how strong do I need to rebuild, or do I rebuild at all.

WEIR: Were you insured?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no insurance.

WEIR: Oh, my gosh.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's so expensive for insurance for anything over the water.

WEIR: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, like, me and whoever, we just can't afford it.

WEIR (voice over): Monique Coombs advocates for fishermen, which these days includes sounding the alarm of a growing mental health crisis.

MONIQUE COOMBS, MAINE COAST FISHERMEN'S ASSOCIATION: You have memories there. You learned to fish there. Your kids learned to fish there. And then these storm comes along and it's completely gone. That, coupled with your community changing because now there is more mansions than there are fish houses, that takes processing. That's a sense of loss and grief and a way of life that's sort of fading and it's -- we're in a precarious position in the industry right now, but fishermen are some of the most resilient people I know. They're stubborn, which is a blessing and a curse.

WEIR: Yes.

COOMBS: And they're really good problem solvers. So, if anybody can build back after storms, if anybody can contend with climate change, I think it's those guys and gals.


WEIR (on camera): And alas, another warmer than average winter storm is forecast this weekend. Not enough to bring snow to the ski resorts who desperately need it. So, it's not just fishing towns, but winter resorts towns, Phil and Poppy, thinking about intergenerational loss.


MATTINGLY: Stubborn, resilient problem solvers. I like it.

Bill Weir, it's an important story. Thank you. HARLOW: Thank you.

MATTINGLY: Well, Donald Trump and E. Jean Carroll are heading to court for closing arguments in the defamation lawsuit against the former president. A jury could rule on those damages today.

Stay with us.



HARLOW: Don't give up hope. Just when you thought nothing -- it's a Friday.

MATTINGLY: That's the start of an infomercial.

HARLOW: I have some hope. Thanks, Phil.

Don't give up hope again. Just when you thought nothing could unite America, or that there's something that every American agrees on, and, no, it is not Harry Enten, there is. It's football, right, Harry?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: That's exactly right, although I'd like to think I bring people together.

Look, 2023, top TV programs. All top 20 were the NFL. Top 50, 49 of the 50 were. Top 100, 93 are. And if you're wondering if that's continuing now, last week's Bills-Chiefs divisional playoff game had over 50 million viewers. That's the most viewed non-NFL championship game ever and the most viewed non-news show since the 2024 "Friends" finale. So, football is bringing us all together.

MATTINGLY: Who won that game again?

ENTEN: Not the right team.

MATTINGLY: (INAUDIBLE). So, why is the NFL so big. Why is it bringing everybody together? Taylor Swift is the obvious answer.

ENTEN: Yes, we're -- we're going to get to Taylor Swift in a second.


ENTEN: Fans of football, look at this, 73 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of independents, 66 percent of Democrats, across partisan lines, despite some people trying to break it down across those lines, they stay steady. Everyone's a fan of the NFL.

How about female viewership in the 2023-2024 regular season? It's up 9 percent, to its highest level ever.

HARLOW: Look at those Bengals fans.

ENTEN: Look at those Bengals fans.


HARLOW: Is that the right team?


ENTEN: Yes. You got it. Yes.


ENTEN: You're much better than Anderson Cooper at this.

The last that I -

HARLOW: That would be the only thing that I can do better than him.


ENTEN: I think there are more.

Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce relationship impact on the NFL, you mentioned it, positive impact. Seventy-one percent of football fans, 80 percent of Swifties. I am a fan of Taylor Swift. I'm a fan of her impact on the game. It's brought more people into it. Despite the fact that we root for different teams and I wished her to cry last week. I do, over all, like her and her impact on the NFL.

MATTINGLY: I love, on the back end, trying to get in a better place with Taylor Swift after your attacks last week.

You know what really matters, brings people together, Jason Kelce, shirtless.

Harry Enten, I love you, buddy.

"CNN NEWS CENTRAL" starts right now.

HARLOW: That was amazing.