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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Today: Sentencing for Convicted Murderer Alex Murdaugh; 35 Million Americans in South Face Tornado, Wind and Rain Threat; Biden Admin to Announce New Aid Package for Ukraine Today. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 03, 2023 - 05:00   ET




CLERK: Guilty verdict signed by the forelady, 3/2/23.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Alex Murdaugh headed to prison, convicted of killing his own wife and son, sentencing just a few hours away.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It sounded like a freight train -- going by the house.


ROMANS: Tornadoes tear through Texas and Louisiana, right now more than 60 million people are still under the threat of severe storms.

Ammunition on the agenda today, President Biden meeting the German chancellor and sending more firepower to Ukraine.


ROMANS: All right. It's Friday. Welcome to our viewers in the United States around the world. I am Christine Romans. This is EARLY START.

Just hours from now, disgraced attorney Alex Murdaugh will take the stand in South Carolina courtroom to learn his fate. A judge will sentence him for murdering his own wife and son.


CLERK: Guilty verdict.

Verdict guilty.

Verdict guilty.

Verdict guilty. (END VIDEO CLIPS)

ROMANS: The jury heard six weeks of testimony, but took less than three hours to convict him. Murdaugh now facing a possible 30 years behind bars.


CREIGHTON WATERS, LEAD PROSECUTOR: Justice was done today. It doesn't matter who your family is. 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.


ROMANS: CNN's Randi Kaye takes a look at how we got here.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): June 7th, 2021. Alex Murdaugh says he called 911 after finding his wife and youngest some dead at their hunting property known as Moselle.

ALEX MURDAUGH, CONVICTED MURDERER: I touched them both, I tried to take, I mean I tried to do it as-limited as possible, but I tried to take their pulse on both of them.

KAYE: Fifty-two-year-old Maggie Murdaugh has been shot four or five times with a 300 blackout rifle. Paul Murdoch, just 22, was shot twice with a shotgun.

KENNETH KINSEY, ORANGEBURG COUNTY SHERIFF DEPT. CRIME SCENE UNIT: She fell to the ground, and that is when the first fatal wound was delivered.

DICK HARPOOTLIAN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: His brain exploded out of his head, hit the ceiling in the shed, and then drop to his feet. Horrendous, horrible, butchering.

KAYE: Both were murdered near the dog kennels on the family's property, not from the main house where Alex Murdaugh says he had been napping at the time. That was a lie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was that you on the kennel video at 8:44 pm on June 7th, the night Maggie and Paul were murdered?


KAYE: Murdaugh was backed into a corner. Investigators had found this video on Paul Murdaugh's cell phone after his death. It was recorded at 8:44 pm, just a few minutes before prosecutors say the murders occur hurt.

Alex Murdaugh can be heard talking in the background.

MURDAUGH: I was no near Paul and Maggie when they got shot.

KAYE: Despite his denials, prosecutors say that he killed them to distract from his alleged financial schemes that were coming to light. He had been confronted about missing funds at his law, firm and his personal finances were about to be exposed at an upcoming court hearing.

MURDAUGH: There are plenty of times where I took money that I should not have taken,

KAYE: Murdaugh's defense team pushed back on the alleged motive and this defense witness told the jury, after analyzing the bullets trajectory, he determined somebody much shorter than Alex Murdaugh, who is about 6'5", likely was responsible for killing his wife.

MIKE SUTTON, FORENSIC ENGINEER: It puts the shooter, or whoever fired the weapon, if they were that tall, it puts them in an unrealistic shooting position.


ROMANS: Alex Murdaugh's legal team did not comment on last night's guilty verdict. His lawyers say they plan to speak to the media after this morning's sentencing.

All right. Now, these destructive storms that first bought blizzard conditions to the West, there are tearing across the country and now taking aim at 35 million in the south, dangerous triple threat of tornadoes, damaging winds, and torrential rains. Officials say several twisters have already been reported in Texas, Louisiana, overturning tractor-trailers, destroying, homes and knocking out power to thousands of customers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It just came up, 20 seconds later, it was gone. And I mean, it's okay. Glass breaking out everywhere, first tornado I have ever been.



ROMANS: Meanwhile, a line of severe thunderstorms causing flash flooding from Oklahoma to Ohio.

Let's bring in CNN's Chad Myers with his latest forecast here.

What areas have been hit the hardest, Chad?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right now, Arkansas. You're right in the middle of that tornado watch that still in effect from 8:00 your time down into Louisiana as well, with the tail end of the line. There is going to be some snow on the north side of this later today, snow from Detroit, Chicago, but the rain has come down, 4 to 6 inches and flash flooding, as you showed pictures, of already occurring in some of those areas.

We're going to see more heavy rainfall, and the same spots and more heavy rainfall spreading into Indianapolis, into Columbus, as well. The potential for severe weather today, not quite as high as yesterday but it is still there, especially when the sun comes out, this is a level three of five, yesterday we had level four of five. So slightly, last but the potential is obviously still.

Here's what the radars going to look like today. Depending on where you are, we're going to see a little bit of rain moving up towards the Northeast, I know you talked about snow for New York, but really that is inside New York. We're talking about upstate New York, but there will be snow, Chicago, in Detroit, and even a little bit of an ice storm for Detroit.

Now, if your north -- I know that you probably have not for this, yet but there could be a foot of snow in some spots there west of Detroit, all the way down to -- county and even down into northern Indiana.

Chicago, you are right on the edge. This could be a big snow event for you, for the north maybe a lot less. Do not be surprised if you do not wake up tomorrow with some snow on the ground because it is certainly coming for many spots.

And if you're going sneaking up in New England, I cannot imagine a better -- if you doing anything in the middle for the country make sure that you hold your hat or take some kind of a hot holder. Like your husband or wife or something.

ROMANS: I've got to tell you, Chad, I spent a few years in Chicago, those winters in Chicago, the springs in Chicago when you get those storms in March, we'll see if they can skirt by it on the north side.

Nice to see you, Chad, thank you so much. The White House had to announce another round of military assistance for Ukraine today. The same, time German chancellor Olaf Scholz is meeting with President Biden at the White House. The new aid package will mostly include ammunition for weapons systems and the Ukrainians already have.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Right now, they are in a vicious fight in Bakhmut, standoff range is important to them. Being able for long-range fire is important, but it's also part and personal with her effort, this package coming tomorrow, of making sure that they are ready when the fighting gets even more intense in the weeks and months ahead, particularly in the spring when the weather will improve and we think that the Russians are going to want to go on the, offense potentially model places at once.


ROMANS: That is the fear, of course.

Scott McLean has the latest from London, what else is on the agenda for the President Biden and the German Chancellor today, Scott? SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Christine. Look,

the White House says that there's no question that the two men will discuss how to ramp up, how to accelerate aid to Ukraine. And it seems that they need it. Things are becoming increasingly difficult in the eastern part of the country, particularly this strategically important and extremely well-fortified town of Bakhmut, where Russians now appear to have a toehold in the town itself. They have also managed to bomb a key bridge, cutting off one of the last remaining supply routes that the Ukrainians have in and out.

And now, a drone reconnaissance unit, the Ukrainian drone reconnaissance unit has been ordered to withdraw from the town. The Ukrainians have vowed to fight in Bakhmut, but they say not at any cost. Now, of course, tanks, western tanks are on the way to Ukraine in coming months, but this aid package that you mentioned, Christine, is unlikely to have more tanks or fighter jets that Ukrainians have asked for. Instead, it is back to basics, more of the shells and ammunition that they will surprise the weapons that the Ukrainians already have.

One of the concerns here is that the Ukrainians are actually firing ammunition on the battlefield faster than the West can produce it. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said last month look, production in the west of ammunition ought to be something that is constant, not reactionary, depending on the state of the war at any given point.

This is actually Olaf Scholz's first trip to Washington since the beginning of the full scale invasion and a lot has changed in the last year. You'll remember that the Germans were pretty hesitant at the outset of the war to send any real significant weapons, now they are committed to sending tanks, but it seems that they are drawing the line at a fighter jets, and that is where the U.S. president seems to be at this point, as well.

Though, Ukrainian defense minister said in an interview published yesterday that he believes that it is only a matter of time before the West comes around when it comes to fighter jets. Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Scott McLean, thank you so much.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaking out on the death threats that she and others you have members of state government have faced.


Nessel says the suspect's willingness to post his intentions online is a key reason why he is now in custody.

CNN's Polo Sandoval has more on this foiled plot.


POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The FBI foiling enlarged plot to kill Jewish government officials in Michigan. The federal complaint filed in eastern Michigan, naming Jack Eugene Carpenter III as a defendant. Sources telling CNN he was arrested just a day after allegedly posting disturbing antisemitic threats online using the handle Temperate Reason.

A law enforcement source telling CNN among those specifically targeted by carpenter, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. I was target of a heavily armed defendant in this matter, she wrote on Twitter.

Court documents laying out the details. On February 18th, the FBI in Detroit was alerted by the bureau's national threat operations center of the post, reading, I'm heading back to Michigan now threatening to carry out the punishment of death to anyone that is Jewish in the Michigan government.

Carpenter's account also showing a bizarre declaration of sovereignty to a new country named New Israel, carpenters property in rural Michigan, according to the criminal complaint. That address revealing carpenter had three 9 mm handguns registered in Michigan, one of which had been stolen from his girlfriend according to the complaint.

That criminal complaint also shedding light on carpenters background, who hadn't served personal protection order against him from early February and have been arrested in December of last year for assault. That unhinged plot just the latest in several threats and attacks on lawmakers and officials in the United States, as well as increasing antisemitic attacks.

OREN SEGAL, VICE PRESIDENT, ADL CENTER ON EXTREMISM: Whether it's in Michigan or other parts of the country, we are seeing a confluence of anti-government, COVID, and other conspiracy theories combined with antisemitism. We see how this is an amazing people to action. It's not just operating, in spaces online, but in the fantasies and imaginations of people who are than willing to take action.

SANDOVAL: Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the target of a kidnapping plot in 2020, the Anti-Defamation League reporting antisemitic attacks reached a record high in the U.S. in 2021, up 34 percent from the year before.

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: This is right in the wheelhouse of what the FBI, and the Director Wray have told us that they think is the most dangerous, the most concerning threat that they face on the counter terrorist side. He is heavily armed, he might be mentally unstable, but nevertheless has decided to act out his animus, his grievance, for the Jewish leaders in Michigan.

SANDOVAL: Polo Sandoval, CNN, New York.


ROMANS: Carpenter's being represented by a public defender. CNN has reached out to that attorney for comment.

Just ahead, CNN on the road to Bakhmut in Ukraine. Are reinforcement heading to help?

Plus, the politician now accused of after a child porn bust. But, first, how this video of a dog doomed Alex Murdaugh at his murder





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Murdaugh, are you a family and I later?

MURDAUGH: A family annihilator? You mean like, did I shoot my wife and my son?



CLERK: Guilty verdict. Verdict guilty. Verdict guilty. Verdict guilty.


ROMANS: All right, Alex Murdaugh convicted of murdering his wife Maggie and son Paul. The jury also found and guilty of two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime.

Let's bring in Imran Ansari, a trial attorney, former assistant district attorney.

This -- I mean, they went in at 3:50 in the afternoon and there are already at 6:41 with a verdict. That was quick.

IMRAN ANSARI, TRIAL ATTORNEY AND FORMER PROSECUTOR: It was swift justice, as I like to say, Christine. A lot of us did not expect such a quick verdict, you had weeks of testimony, of evidence in this trial, but I think that speed that the jury came to this verdict, really shows what they took it from this trial. The important parts of the evidence that they analyzed, and I think that it was the credibility of Alex Murdaugh, which really won this case for the prosecutors.

ROMANS: Yeah, the complete lack of credibility of Alex Murdaugh, they proved again and again that this person, his first instinct is to lie and convincing the jury that he is lying to you when he says that he did not kill his family.

What do you think made the prosecution's case so convincing?

ANSARI: It was that video. Paul Murdaugh, I would like to say kind of spoke from the grave. He testified in this case by way of that video. That video, essentially made Alex Murdaugh, but in that position to have to testify, to explain away why so many witnesses came into court, and said yeah that is Alex Murdaugh's voice there.

Alex Murdaugh, of course, for weeks, months, throughout the course of the investigation denied being at the kennels, I think that was the key piece of evidence that led to the testimony of Alex Murdaugh and of course, all of those lies, the prosecutors put forth before that jury, really when the case for the prosecution, Christine.

ROMANS: Do you think it is the right call in the end to let Alex Murdaugh testify on his own behalf?

ANSARI: So, of course, the defendant always has the constitutional right. They're going to testify, they're going to testify. You as an attorney, you can counsel that defendant and say, listen, it's not in your best interest, but if they want to do, or they're going to do it.

But, I do think that he had to do it in this case, in the sense that he had to confront that video. If he did not confront that video, then the prosecution could use that strong piece of evidence against him. He had to take that shot. Try to explain it away, of course the defense put him on the stand, it was about to six hours, 20 minutes of cross examination, Christine, that ultimately the prosecution were able to show him as someone without any credibility, somebody who lies habitually, a professional wire, and now the jury rendered is filled it and this is what we have.

ROMANS: The prosecutor Creighton Water spoke after the verdict.


Listen to what he said.


WATERS: It doesn't matter how much money you, have or people think you have. It does not 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.


ROMANS: You know the stench of a privilege just hung over this whole case from the very beginning. I thought that was interesting what the prosecutor said.

ANSARI: Yeah, and I think the dynamic of this family, in that small South Carolina town, the privilege, the sort of generations of notoriety, and now the tarnish meant of the Murdaugh name in that town is fascinating, I think that's why the public has been so attached to this trial, and we see here with great waters, with that statement. Really heading home that no matter how small a town is, how big a name or notorious the name is, they are not anyone, no one is above justice.

I think the jury here, really the dynamic of it, the small, town the jury had to take that into consideration. Now, with their verdict, of course the sentencing today. We see Alex Murdaugh being brought to justice.

ROMANS: It's interesting there is a lot of conflicting testimony about cell phones, where the cell moans were, moving whether they were on or off. A lot of different ballistics testimony, a lot of technical stuff that I wondered if that would be enough for one person to find reasonable doubt. But it does not look like any of that conflicting technical information deterred the jury.

ANSARI: Yeah Christine, I always like to a trial is dynamic. It's a dynamic beast. There are ups and downs for both sides.

When the prosecution were having what I thought was possibly some issues with their circumstantial case, you know, the tides were tipped in the favor offense at some point. Ultimately, this case was won by the prosecution because of Alex Murdaugh and also his son and that video. The forensic data, all of the sort of holes that the defense were poking holes in that forensic data, the investigation, Christine, that was all undone by Alex Murdaugh's own testimony.

And we will see now with his test sentencing 30 years to life he's facing. Prosecution is facing life without parole, now within the judges and without testimony. Now we're going to see what he gets.

ROMANS: Yeah. Imran Ansari, nice to see, you thank you so much for expert analysis.

All right. Quick hits across America now.

The EPA ordering rail company Norfolk Southern detest for dioxins at the site of a toxic train drill means. Dioxins are greeted by burning plastic. The derailed train was carrying chemicals to make plastics.

Patrick Wojahn resigning as mayor of College Park, Maryland, just before his arrest of 56 counts of distributing child pornography.

The House committee saying that they will investigate Republican Congressman George Santos. He is facing mounting legal issues and calls to resign for lying extensively about his background. All right, just ahead, high danger as flames ripped through the skyscraper and CNN just steps from the fighting in Ukraine.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: You see this armored vehicle right here? The V signs of victory.




ROMANS: Welcome back.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken holding his first private face-to- face meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov since the invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago. Blinken spoke to him on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers meeting.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: I told the foreign minister that, no matter what else is happening in the world or in our relationship, the United States will always be ready to engage and act on strategic arms control, just to the United States of the Soviet Union did even at the height of the Cold War.


ROMANS: CNN's Vedika Sud live in Delhi, India, with more for us.

Vedika, what did these two men talk about?

VEDIKA SUD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to Antony Blinken, Christine, he did talk about U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, who he said has been wrongfully detained by the Russians. He said that there was a serious proposal put out by the U.S., that Russia should consider. He also spoke to Lavrov about how the war should end. His words there were, and this war of aggression.

Now, according to the Russian side, Lavrov him self has not spoken about the face to face meeting with Blinken on the sidelines of the G20 foreign minister here in New Delhi, but according to Moscow, yes, there was a meeting. But they said that there was no real proposal there that came about, and he sort of negotiation between the two sides.

Also strong words coming out of Moscow, where they said that there was no talk on Paul Whelan, and that is a lie. Strong words coming out from Moscow. There also, let me tell, you the last 36 hours here in New Delhi, the face-off between Blinken and Lavrov has caused a shadow on the G20 talks that took place on Thursday here in New Delhi.

There has been a lot of work that continue into Friday, and according to Lavrov, the West is obsessed about talking about Ukraine, which is impacting g20 talks because of which there is no consensus and hands no joint statement. Here's what Lavrov had to say.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: These days, when it is not something with the West is doing. When Russia has, after many years, started to defend itself, there is nothing except Ukraine, which is a legitimate interest. It's a shame.


SUD: But on Friday morning, local time here in Delhi, Antony Blinken went on to say that the focus is on.