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Laura Coates Live

Trump Testifies In E. Jean Carroll Defamation Trial; Trump Joines Effort To Get Fulton County D.A. Dismissed From Georgia Election Subversion Case Over Affair Allegations; Trump Pressures Republicans To Block Border Deal; Alabama Death Row Inmate Kenneth Smith Executed Using Nitrogen Gas; American Citizen Savoi Wright Shares His Story Of Wrongful Detention In A Venezuelan Prison Cell. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired January 25, 2024 - 22:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is conduct that will not be tolerated by anyone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, ultimately, the decision is made not to prosecute her criminally for insider trading and only charged her with the obstruction of justice and false statements.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Martha Stewart is being prosecuted not because of who she is, but because of what she did.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: What a face to see. Be sure to tune in because this new original series from CNN, the many lives of Martha Stewart, will premiere this Sunday at 9:00 P.M. only on CNN.

I'm Kaitlan Collins. Thank you so much for joining us tonight here on "THE SOURCE".

LAURA COATES LIVE starts right now.

LAURA COATES, CNN ANCHOR: Donald Trump's blink and you might just miss it moment on the stand tonight on a bonus hour of LAURA COATES LIVE.

Three minutes, three whole minutes, or maybe three short minutes, that's how long the former president was on the stand today in the E. Jean Carroll defamation trial. And he still managed, still managed to say something that got part of his testimony stricken from the record.

Now, before the jury even got into the room, there was a, well, one describing as an agitated Trump. He was erupting his own lawyer, insisting, I never met the woman, I don't know who the woman is, I never met this woman, unquote. Then you met an agitated judge who told Trump to pipe it down. Then Trump takes the stand, raises his right hand, swears to give truthful testimony. His attorney, Alina Habba, asked if he stood by his earlier deposition in the case. 100 percent, yes, Trump replies. Habba then asked Trump, did you deny the allegation because Ms. Carroll made an accusation? That's exactly right. Yes, I did. She said that like I considered a false accusation, totally false, Trump replies. The judge then cuts him off saying, everything you said after, yes I did, is stricken. Why, you might ask, well, because each of Carroll's accusations have already been proven to be true in yet another case.

Now, this one we're talking about today is one about him continuing to defame her. Back to the testimony. Habba's final question to Trump, did you ever instruct anyone to hurt Ms. Carroll in your statements? Trump's reply, no, I just wanted to defend myself, my family, and, frankly, the presidency.

So, did that three minutes on the stand help him or hurt him with the jury? By the way, he will likely be back in court tomorrow.

Let's talk about all of it. It will take longer than three minutes here on this particular show. I want to bring in CNN Legal Analyst and former Federal Prosecutor Elliot Williams, as well as White Collar Federal Criminal Defense Attorney Rebecca LeGrand. I'm so glad both of you are here.

First of all, it took longer to argue about what he would talk about in the parameters at trial than I'm actually testifying today. And, of course, it was less than five minutes. He was already admonished by the judge. Are you surprised that there was testimony stricken?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I am not surprised there was testimony stricken and not only was it only five minutes, but I think a total of nine words or whatever from the president are now part of the record. He said no comma and then went on into a little bit of a monologue.

Now, the challenging thing here, I was even talking to my wife about this earlier tonight, not a lawyer, juries can't unhear the things they hear. The judge might have instructed them to strike anything after the point at which the president had said no but.

COATES: It's like telling you right now, don't picture a pink elephant. All you can see right now, whatever you do, don't pink elephant.

WILLIAMS: And, literally, and that's kind of what happened in court today. So, I'm not surprised now. Frankly, I'm surprised that it was as constrained as it was, I would have thought he would have figured out a way to give a speech, or his lawyer would have popped off a little bit. But the judge managed to maintain a fair amount of control here based on what we saw.

COATES: Were you surprised by that? I mean, obviously, first of all, him taking to the stand, for some, may have been surprising that he would use this today and not have done it a year ago when what he wanted to talk about in terms of sexual assault that was the time to talk about what he did or did not do. REBECCA LEGRAND, WHITE COLLAR FEDERAL CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Correct. So, a normal defendant I think would not have testified here. This trial is only about damages. It has already been established what happened here. And Judge Kaplan was graphic today and accurate. And if it's okay, I think what he said is important.

And I think it's part of why Trump was reined in. Judge Kaplan is extremely experienced, he's been on the bench for 30 years. He knows how to handle difficult, complex trials and run a tight shift. And that's why he spent that time before Trump took the stand, making clear what are the boundaries here, and what he had to say explicitly to Trump and his attorneys was, it is already a fact for this case because it has already been established by a unanimous jury that Donald Trump penetrated this woman's vagina without her consent forcefully.


That is established. He cannot fight that. It has been established by a jury.

And I think in response to that, at least some reporters said that Trump made sort of an ugh face, but, you know, he said things on Access Hollywood that sounded similar.

COATES: Well, you know, when you think about this, and I think this is the part that many people who are hearing about it, they get confused about this part. Why is it always defamation if you are defending yourself? That's the part that I think people get hung up on and say, well, hold on a second, can't he just say, I didn't do it, I don't know her? Why is that enough to be defamatory when he can't do it now?

WILLIAMS: Okay, and here's where it gets a little bit confusing. You can say, I did not do it. You cannot make statements that, number one, will harm someone's reputation, or number two, hurt them financially in some way.

And so, for instance --

COATES: But I did not do it, Mike, as a liar, right? That's the conflation people do.

WILLIAMS: Sure. You're a liar, she's crazy, she's out of her mind, she's fabricating facts. This writer who purports to be a columnist lies and tells untruths all over the world. He just hurt her reputation as a professional. So, that's where defamation kicks in.

Now, to say that there's a clear line between what is a matter of self-defense and what is a personal defense and what is a defamatory statement is a blurry one and judges have struggled with it for years. But if you notice why Judge Kaplan quickly cut the former president off after the word, no, it was a yes or no question. And once he started getting into the specifics of, I didn't do it, I don't believe her, she's lying, that's where you start getting into the realm of defamation. LEGRAND: And here, it's established that he did it. There was a trial, there were jurors, the evidence was heard.

COATES: And he had a chance to testify then.

LEGRAND: Correct, and chose not to then, and now wants to probably put on a little bit of a show and Judge Kaplan was having none of it.

But, these are very serious allegations. And there is a difference between just saying, I have a right to a defense, I think I'm going to be, I think I'm innocent, and lying about, in a hurtful way, about something that happened, hurting a woman, and then lying about it, and smearing her reputation.

COATES: They want -- excuse me, sorry. They wanted to focus a lot on that they believe she exaggerated the threats. The idea of defamation means that somebody had an established reputation. It was lessened in the eyes of the community based on what you have said. It was provably false in some way. They're trying to make all these different connections.

The focus on the exaggeration of the threat is where they're going to try to lessen whatever damages may come in. How do you do that successfully?

WILLIAMS: So, they did it. They attempted to do it a little bit today by bringing in emails suggesting that when she spoke to other people, she minimized the amount of harm that she had suffered or said or even brought in emails from a friend who said, well, she's kind of crazy herself, right? I don't believe all the things she says. That's what you do, any sensible attorney.

COATES: As the defense.

WILLIAMS: As a defendant, what you would do is say that, number one, this person wasn't as hurt as much as they thought they were, or, number two, the facts aren't as this person has relayed them now again.

COATES: Or they weren't held in high esteem in the first place.

WILLIAMS: Now, again, as Rebecca has made the point several times here, a jury has already found that this thing happened. Now, all that needs to be sorted out is how much was her reputation harmed and how much did she suffer a financial hit.

COATES: Real quick, we have now two cases in New York where it's not a matter of whether it has bound to have happened. Now, it's how much going to cost you. It's a trend for Trump.

LEGRAND: It is and it's going to keep happening. I mean, he's still out there doing it. He's inviting the next suit right now. And, you know, he's leaving the courthouse saying this is not America. Well, you know, it's the America I know it's the courts I know. When judges and juries make decisions and then you ignore them you're going to get indicted again. You're going to get sued again. WILLIAMS: And, Laura, to the point, every word he says now can still be used in this trial, which is not done yet. So, the judge can if he goes and gives a press conference tomorrow, the judge can call him right in and impeach him sort of contradicting statements based on things he said. Stop talking. Like if you're -- just stop, just don't talk.

COATES: All right. We'll take that advice right now. Elliot, Rebecca, thank you. We're going to stop talking.

Now, let's discuss calls for the dismissal of District Attorney Fani Willis in the 2020 elections sub version case against Trump and his co-defendants in Georgia pointing to alleged misconduct between Willis and her lead prosecutor.

Let's bring in CNN Legal Analyst and former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Michael Moore. Michael, good to see you.

This has been quite the distraction from the underlying facts in these cases and what the trial calendar may look like. In Fulton County today, CNN has exclusive reporting that Fani Willis and Lead Prosecutor Nathan Wade and others in the office are expected to receive subpoenas for a February 15th hearing on the allegations of an alleged affair, a financial misconduct.


What might that hearing reveal?

MICHAEL MOORE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I'm glad to be with you. And you're right. It's just a mess right now and this is a huge distraction to the case. My guess is that the judge who has run, I think, a good courtroom and has kept things moving along, so I give him kudos for that, I think he'll probably take control of the situation. He does not want to get into a Real Housewives situation where this is just salacious details spread around the courtroom that have nothing to do with the case.

It wouldn't surprise me at all for him to say, look, I want you to state in your place as an officer of the court what of the allegations made the motion have merit, which ones are true and which ones you deny. And that may narrow the issues that come out with witnesses.

But as it stands right now, there will be witnesses subpoenaed in. I'm sure there'll be testimony about trips taken and money spent and all those things that are raised in the motion, which I think, frankly, again, distract from the case and probably could be put to bed fairly quickly if the district attorney and Mr. Wade, if there's any truth, that we don't know that, I don't know that, but if there's any truth to the motion, they could probably put this to bed pretty quickly by simply stepping back from this particular case.

COATES: Well, Trump is joining this motion to not only have them step away, but actually have the Georgia election case itself dismissed over the allegations of misconduct that Willis and Wade are emerging, that it would have him disqualified. But, you know, when I keep thinking about this, and you read the case law in Georgia, you think about the ethics, and, of course, you've got the hint of impropriety and all things are going on. But because it doesn't go to the core, as we now know, the core set of facts alleged in this wide-ranging complaint, should they have to step down? What is the practical effect of this distraction?

MOORE: Well, I think there's no chance that this is the death blow to the case, I will say that. This case is not going to be dismissed because of these allegations. And, frankly, at the same time, I don't know that even the personal allegations have much merit anyway. I mean, at this point, that may be something for another place, another venue. This has nothing to do really with this case.

What matters is whether or not there may have been some money and some benefit received, for instance, money that was paid out to a prosecutor who was keeping the case going and suddenly the district attorney to appoint that prosecutor may have received some benefit from it. That's going to be the hook, I think, at the end of the day. It's not going to be about the other allegations in there.

So, that is the problem that she's facing. And as a prosecutor, what she wants to do is have a case that has clean optics because you want people, even the detractors of a case, to be able to have confidence in what happens and not have to second guess every decision you make.

But essentially now, if these allegations are true, they have given them the stones to throw at this case. So you're going to have people say, well, it's politically motivated. It was done to enable the relationship, or to help send some money to somebody that she had a relationship with, and they have given them the tools to attack it.

So, to kind of keep the case protected, to recognize your duty as a prosecutor, even though I do not think it frankly rises exactly to the black-letter law textbook definition of a conflict for a prosecutor, I also think it has the appearance of impropriety.

And so prosecutors have a duty to make sure that that doesn't get in the way of the pursuit of justice in a courtroom. And that, unfortunately, is what happened. That's what the judge is going to have to deal with. This is not the first time we've had an incident like this. We had the issue with the fundraiser thrown back some period of time. You know, back earlier, Judge McBurney basically said, you're kind of out of this and the optics here are awful. Well, those optics were bad. These right now are probably indescribable.

COATES: Well, you know, those who our defendants have and will continue to seize on this and hoping that the appearance of impropriety will be translated to undermining the case, but focusing on the underlying allegations contained in the indictment as part of a team that has brought it, I will be most interested to see what impact it has on the case.

And, again, she's an elected official. Perhaps the voters will make their own determinations if they do, in fact, think it is an insurmountable hurdle. But we shall see. Michael Moore, I think you called it a Housewives moment, I didn't know you were a fan. We'll talk offline about which is your particular franchise. Who knew? I'm not going to ask you here because they're all your favorites. I know. We'll talk. We'll talk later. Thank you.

MOORE: That sounds good. Great to see you, Laura.

COATES: Good to see you too.

Now, the question, does Donald Trump think that he's actually still the president?


I should pause there for effect, but you know it's an actual question. Because I'm asking because he seems to be trying to kill the immigration deal in the Senate as if he has a pen that could ultimately sign legislation still. We'll talk about it next.


COATES: So, what could have been a huge deal may now be up in smoke. Today, Donald Trump weighing in on a bipartisan immigration deal that senators have been working on for months. Think about what I just said there. He's weighing in. They've worked on it for months. The former president calling the deal, quote, meaningless, yet many Senate Republicans, as in incumbents, are not quite jumping on board with the former president.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): I think the border is a very important issue for Donald Trump, and the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and Congress people that he doesn't want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is really appalling. SEN. JAMES LANKFORD (R-OK): We don't even look at where we are

politically right now. This issue for the last 30 years has not passed Congress because it's hard. It's emotional. Every side jumps out.


But we're going to take the action to actually make things better.

SEN. TODD YOUNG (R-IN): I think it would be tragic. So, I hope no one is trying to take this away for campaign purposes.


COATES: Just moments ago, in aid to senior House GOP Leader Steve Scalise telling Senate counterparts, the border deal is dead on arrival in the House.

Joining me now is CNN's Capitol Hill Reporter Melanie Zanona and Caitlin Dickerson of The Atlantic. Ladies, I'm so happy to have you both here. Am I like in an alternate universe? Because Donald Trump does not have the GOP nomination, maybe he'll be presumptive, who knows, but he's not the president of the United States. He's not a current RNC nominee. How is he having so much of an impact on current negotiations?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, he is on the path, the path towards the nomination, and he has had a resurgence inside the GOP, and that is having a real-time impact on Capitol Hill.

And this is a very familiar dynamic. It is not the first time that senators have worked behind the scenes on a very delicate issue for months only to have Trump come and blow it all up, because a lot of members are scared of crossing him.

And that is just the truth on Capitol Hill. They are worried now about seeing as undermining Trump, because he's reached out to them personally and said, I want a campaign on this issue in November, and I don't want Joe Biden to have a victory on this issue where he is politically vulnerable. So, that is driving a lot of the dysfunction on Capitol Hill right now.

COATES: You mean, the idea that he would simply try to undermine it because I need to campaign on this issue? That would be -- I mean, I couldn't see the emperor would have on no clothes at that point. Is that not obvious?

CAITLIN DICKERSON, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: That's really troubling and I've been covering this issue since the Obama administration. I've always heard murmurs of this fear that perhaps Democrats and Republicans are holding on to the status quo because they think they have more to gain from the current reality than from actually fixing the situation, but, you know, Donald Trump has basically come out and said it now.

And we're talking about an issue that affects human lives. You know an issue that has brought in family separations. You know you're talking about life and death situations for a lot of people when you're looking at the question of asylum and on the other side you're talking about American cities that are overwhelmed and clearly a system that's broken.

And so to come out and boldly say that we can't make a deal on this issue because the Democrats only want it for political reasons, I think that has some center and moderate Republicans concerned, you know, to just tell voters straight up that they're really not interested, that Donald Trump really isn't interested in fixing this issue that he talks about as much as he does. But Donald Trump has won out on these issues before and he may very well again.

COATES: I mean, he's talking about and encouraging deploying the National Guard right now. Last I checked, that was the actual president's discussion, decision as commander-in-chief, and yet here we are, maybe two main cooks in the kitchen. What do you know about this deployment? DICKERSON: Deploying the National Guard is on Donald Trump's list of policies that he wants to put in place right away if he wins the election in 2024, opening up tent camps that would take in thousands of people, unfettered arrests and unprecedented numbers of deportations. I mean, these are all things that he's made very explicitly clear that he has planned if he's to win the election. And so we shouldn't have any question or qualm about it at this point.

You know, it was a different situation in 2016. Donald Trump campaigned on bold ideas, having controversial ideas on immigration. But a lot of the time, we talked about those ideas as probably things that wouldn't actually come to fruition. Now we know for sure that he will pursue them.

COATES: Melanie, I mean, is this an indication -- though, it's been, what, four decades since there was last immigration reform? They were close. It's gone. I mean, is this Washington, D.C., yet again not taking yes for an answer, because there's been concessions made?

ZANONA: Right. Immigration is something that has long eluded Washington. They've been trying to get a deal on immigration for many years. But what's interesting about these talks, now, Caitlin and I were talking before the show, we actually don't know what's in it. A lot of the Republicans, including Donald Trump, don't know what's in it, which is kind of ironic that they're out here bashing it. But, based on our conversations with sources, what they're looking at is fairly narrow here.

And the White House has offered some pretty big concessions. They are willing to restrict asylum laws. They're willing to rein in the president's parole authorities. These are things that Democrats, especially on the left, have been really reluctant to give in on. But it shows just how much desire there is on the left to get a deal.

Republicans, though, you know, the Donald Trump factor can't be overstated here. In fact, one Republican senator who's talking on conditioning unanimity (ph) to my colleague, Lauren Fox, said, this proposal would have had almost unanimous Republican support if it weren't for Donald Trump, again, just really underscoring here how this already complicated issue just got even more complicated with Donald Trump.


COATES: I can't believe it. I mean, it's just so -- all that we talked about, the border and reform and immigration and getting people to the table and the bipartisan effort, to think that this could be the result, it's just stunning.

Thank you both for being here. Melanie and Caitlin, thank you both so much.

Up next, there is breaking news out of Alabama after now the execution of a man using an untested method. We'll be back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COATES: We have breaking news. Alabama has put to death Kenneth Smith. He is the first death row inmate known to die by nitrogen gas. It's a wholly new method of execution in this country, one that some experts have said is veiled in secrecy and could lead to excessive pain or even torture.

Now, he was sentenced to death for a murder-for-hire plot in 1988. He appeared conscious for several minutes and shook on a gurney during the nitrogen and hypoxia execution, according to one reporter who read notes compiled by all media witnesses who attended the execution.


CNN's Isabel Rosales, excuse me, is in Alabama with more. Isabella, thank you for joining us. Tell us what happened tonight with the execution.

ISABEL ROSALES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Laura, this is the first new method of execution since 1982. That's when lethal injection was first introduced. Now according to witnesses, Kenneth Smith's last words were in part, quote, "Tonight, Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards."

After the execution, there was also a press conference with witnesses, including media observers. And they said that Smith appeared to be conscious for several minutes. For about two minutes, he shook against his mask and the gurney. And then there were several minutes of him deeply breathing before his breathing then slowed down.

Also, at that press conference was Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm. He was asked about that shaking, especially keeping in mind that in court documents the state had argued that he would be unconscious in seconds and dead within minutes. Here's what he had to say.


JOHN HAMM, ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS COMMISSIONER: -- appeared that, one, Smith was holding his breath as long as he could. And then there's also information out there -- he struggled against his restraints a little bit, but there's some involuntary movement and some Agonal breathing.

So, that was all expected and is in the side effects that we've seen or researched on nitrogen hypoxia. So, nothing was out of the order of what we were expecting.

UNKNOWN: You think it was involuntary?

HAMM: Yes.

ROSALES: And we were the first media outlet to speak with the spiritual advisor of Smith, Reverend Jeff Hood, who described it. He was in the execution chamber right next to Smith and he described as quote, "absolute torture", saying that Smith was conscious for several minutes, struggling against the gurney and the mask as we heard from other media observers -- gasping, he says that his face turned colors and it was not painless, as state officials claimed it would be. Laura.

COATES: Isabel Rosales, thank you so much for your reporting. Next, I'll talk to an expert who says the state of Alabama doesn't have the competency to carry out an execution using a new method. He is Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative.




COATES: Alabama death row inmate Kenneth Smith was just executed using nitrogen gas, the first time this has ever been done in the United States. He was convicted of murder for the 1988 killing of Elizabeth Sennett. Just a few years later in 1992, the conviction was overturned on a procedural issue.

It wasn't until 1996 when Smith was retried and convicted with a recommendation of life in prison. A judge overruled the recommendation and sentenced him to death. But it wasn't until 2022 that the state even attempted to carry out the execution. That attempt failed. Just a year later, an Alabama court ruled execution by nitrogen gas would now be acceptable.

There were two last minute appeals to the Supreme Court. His lawyers arguing a second attempt at execution, this time by nitrogen gas, might run afoul of the constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Both of those appeals were denied. The last such denial happening earlier tonight with the liberal justices saying that they would have paused the execution.

Joining me now, Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Bryan, thank you for being with us this evening. I look to your insight in mind on moments like this to think about the weight of this moment. And you worked closely with the attorney representing Kenneth Smith. What is your reaction to what has happened tonight?

BRYAN STEVENSON, FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE: Well, I think it's really tragic and regrettable. You know, we had warned that the state would not be able to carry out this execution in the way that they were predicting.

And I'm very concerned about the witness reports that indicate that Mr. Smith may have suffered terribly, writhing in pain, struggling, breathing heavily, showing signs of distress that witnesses are reporting is not consistent with an execution method that meets the Eighth Amendment's requirements for avoiding cruel and unusual punishment.

And even without that, I don't believe that the state of Alabama should have been permitted to attempt a second execution. We have to remember that 14 months ago, Kenneth Smith was told that he was going to die on a certain day, at a certain time.

He was then strapped to a gurney for four hours waiting for them to kill him. Then they began stabbing him with these needles, trying to find a vein. At one point they put him in a stress position, lifted him vertically so that his arms were spread out like someone on a cross and they were jabbing the needle into his neck. And they finally stopped the execution when the warrant expired.

That was traumatizing. That was horrific. And we don't think that a state should subject someone in that condition to a second execution without something radically different happening. And that didn't happen in Alabama. They just changed the amount of time they had to carry out the execution.

And that was the thrust of the argument, is that he had already been tortured in a way that is unacceptable in our society. And now, we see that that continued tonight with a process that there are a host of questions surrounding.

COATES: You know, some would look at this issue and their visual reaction might be -- excuse me.


This is somebody convicted of murder, somebody who has been sentenced to death. And the idea of cruel and unusual seems inconsistent of an objection when the death penalty is obviously on the table.

When you look at the Eighth Amendment and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, is there a bright line rule of some kind to which we can look to determine how a court could judge the manner of execution to rise to that level? Or are we in truly, with this new method, uncharted territory?

STEVENSON: Well, I've always believed that the threshold question of the death penalty isn't whether someone deserves to die for the crime they've committed. The threshold question is, do we deserve to kill?

In our society, we don't rape people who rape. We don't torture people who torture. That's because we believe that the integrity of the law means that we have to do better than the worst offenders in our society.

And so, it's not enough to say this person committed a violent crime. And I don't think we have a system that has consistently and fairly and reliably carried out the death penalty in a way. And that's what creates the Eighth Amendment questions.

In Mr. Smith's case, the jury that heard the evidence that convicted him returned a verdict of life. It's only in Alabama that Mr. Smith could face the execution. The elected judge overrode the jury's verdict of life and sentenced him to death. There's not another state in the country where he would have been facing execution.

So, if we care about the jury's perspective on what should have happened, he would have never been in this situation. And I think the Eighth Amendment questions are important because the integrity of the death penalty, when for every nine people we've executed, we've identified one innocent person on death row who's innocent, it's a shocking rate of error.

It would not be accepted by food safety administrations or airline safety. We wouldn't tolerate that kind of error, but we continue to tolerate it in the death penalty. It's a punishment that is disproportionately applied to people of color and the poor.

And so, that raises the bar when you start asking questions about is this punishment meeting our Eighth Amendment a guarantee to avoid punishment that is unusual or cruel?

And I think subjecting someone to an execution process that extends over 14 months, where it begins on November 22nd, 2022, and doesn't end until January 25th, 2023, with a lot of anguish and a lot of torture, I think that's unacceptable. And I think we can, and we should do better in this country. If we're going to have a death penalty, we can't do what we did to Kenneth Smith.

COATES: Why do you think, I mean, given all that you have raised, why do you think the Supreme Court opted not to stay the execution or look more closely at a method that involved, you said, a judge overturning the will of the jury that has not been tried before, where there wasn't true -- excuse me --


COATES: - where there wasn't true transparency into what would be the physiological effect on not only him but others in the room. Why pass it?

STEVENSON: Well, I think we're really struggling in the courts. I'll be honest. I think we have a lot of judges in this country who believe that finality is more important than fairness. And they don't want to intervene in these cases, even when there's dramatic evidence of innocence or there's dramatic evidence of a constitutional violation.

And then there are other judges who believe that nothing is more important than the integrity of the law, than our commitment to fairness, to doing what our constitution requires. And I want to just note that there were federal judges in all of the appeals filed by Mr. Smith who said this execution should not proceed. And the 11th Circuit just a few hours before Justice Jill Pryor said that she would grant a stay.

Mr. Smith's case execution was stayed in 2022 by two federal courts. This current U.S. Supreme Court seems to be really prioritizing, allowing states to have their way, to have access to these executions. But there has to be a limit, or we're going to see a continuing downgrade in the quality and the standards. And I think the fairness that people in America are expecting.

COATES: Bryan Stevenson, you have to wonder if this is the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning or the down road is a lot more to discuss. He said in his last words, "Tonight in Alabama, humanity took its step backwards." We'll see if those words continue to resonate. Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you.


COATES: Well, he was one of 10 Americans released from Venezuelan detention in a prisoner swap. Now, he is speaking out exclusively for the first time here. Savoi Wright is my guest, and he's next.




COATES: It is the stuff of nightmares, quite frankly, but for American citizen Savoi Wright, it was a reality. Detained for no apparent reason, Wright says that he was kidnapped, held for ransom, and confined to a tiny Venezuelan prison cell for nearly two months. And while his family fought for his release, he worried for his safety, sharing his cell with up to four others.

Last month, he became one of 10 Americans released from Venezuelan detention in a prisoner swap. Savoi is here now to tell his story for the very first time, exclusively, to CNN. Savoi, thank you so much for being here, and welcome home. I had the pleasure of speaking to your mother and sister who were fighting for your return, and it must be overjoying to see them and be home.


But tell me a little bit about how you even got to that experience. You were detained. You didn't know why, but you knew that you were in trouble.

SAVOI WRIGHT, AMERICAN FREED FROM VENEZUELAN DETENTION IN PRISONER SWAP: Yes, I just want to say thanks for having me. It's been quite a journey. So, how did I get to the experience? Essentially, first I was -- kidnapping, right? So, it's kind of an interesting situation where I was led to a certain area, and it was either you want to go to jail or you want to go home, type of thing. You're going to be a witness or you're going to jail is what they told me.

So, it was -- started with shock and I just kind of went along to kind of see what the process would be and it ended up getting worse and worse until I became a political hostage that was being traded in a huge sanctions deal internationally, so --

COATES: Once they realized you were American, that changed a lot, didn't it?

WRIGHT: They said you are premium. Yeah.

COATES: What did that mean to you?

WRIGHT: It could mean very -- severe danger, but it can also mean dollar signs, right, or opportunity for leverage and trading. But it really -- the word got out, I was American and I was in Venezuela. It wasn't the best opportunity. Yeah.

COATES: Some would look at the, with the State Department and their different categories of different places. Venezuela, obviously a high- risk area. You traveled there, nonetheless, but one could not have anticipated this happening. Did you realize, though, the extent of danger you may have been in even going?

WRIGHT: Yes, so actually I'd been there before. So, I had a visa actually in Venezuela. I speak Spanish. I've been to pretty much all Latin countries and in Latin America, except for Bolivia, Suriname, Guayana and Guayana Francesa. So, I'm very familiar with the culture, with the terrain in Venezuela, the people, you know, I was looking at business opportunities.

So, for me, it felt like yeah, there's risk. There's risk everywhere. There's risk in the United States, too, but I didn't realize the extent of the risk. I was an American citizen abroad.

COATES: I mean, visa or not, you ended up in a prison.

WRIGHT: Correct.

COATES: And what happened to you there could have cost your life. There were moments you thought you would, in fact, not get out.


COATES: What was your experience like inside of a Venezuelan prison?

WRIGHT: Yeah, well I was actually moved around to four different places.

COATES: Really? So, I had four different experiences. In each of those, it was the absolute worst. And then I saw a pattern, it would eventually get better. So, whether through prayer, calling on certain archangels, God, reading the New Testament, it was one of the only things that were available to read. You don't really have privileges to read material. Sometimes a lot of coffee to stay up at nights.

COATES: Why were you so intent on staying up? Were you afraid of being harmed?

WRIGHT: There are some places it wasn't safe, probably to go to sleep.

COATES: Inside the prisons.

WRIGHT: Correct.

COATES: Was it even worse because you were an American in that prison?

WRIGHT: You could say that. You could say it was worse in some places it was better. Yeah.

COATES: I mean, you're very tall sitting here, obviously. It's deceptive in television. We appear to be the same height. We are not. I'm five foot three. You are what, eight feet tall? I can't imagine.


COATES: But you're, I think like six -- seven. How tall are you?

WRIGHT: Six eleven.

COATES: Six eleven. Okay. Well, see, even more so.


COATES: I'm trying to picture in an average prison.

WRIGHT: Right.

COATES: Being able to have the facilities and the space, even if you were the only person in the cell.

WRIGHT: Right.

COATES: But you shared with up to four people.

WRIGHT: Right.

COATES: And with your height and physical appearance, how did that impact you?

WRIGHT: Some of the actual holding cells where I was, it was up to 10 people or more. So, it was actually more than four. Beds, you kind of make it work, sleep diagonally, but you just, it's really about survival. Right. So, there's a word in Spanish, aguantar, which is like to stand.

So, you're essentially, you withstand enough, because they were always saying, you need to adapt. You need to make this your normal. I'm like, this isn't normal. I'm going to survive. I'm going to get through these times, and then I'm going to get out. And then of course you have those moments when you break, you just say, how did I get here? Am I ever going to make it out? When you're looking at that wall, you haven't been outside for 30 days. Haven't seen the sun, you know, fresh air, little things we take for granted, right?

COATES: You certainly -- those who held you at different points seemed to exploit financially the dire straits that you found yourself in.


COATES: At some point, were you aware that the State Department was going to try to help that you had been designated as wrongfully held? What was that process like of having that revealed to you?

WRIGHT: It was never revealed to me.

COATES: Really? WRIGHT: I didn't even know I was a hostage until the end. So,

originally it was money grab, kidnapping. I was being detained, investigated to make sure that I wasn't a spy. There's a concern for espionage that's big in Venezuela, especially for foreigners from the United States.

Once I was cleared as not being a spy, I was still declared as a spy and then I was moved to a political prison. And at that point, some of the Americans were actually able to let me know, hey, we're going to let you know what's going on, by the way.


We're being held hostage in a huge sanctions deal as leverage. And my heart dropped and it was just the worst nightmare.

COATES: All over again.

WRIGHT: Some of them have been there up to two years.

COATES: Really?

RIGHT: Yeah.

COATES: And you finally found yourself able to get on that plane, to be able to return. You are still grappling with a lot of the trauma of the time you were there. I can imagine the psychological effects and the emotional turmoil --


COATES: -- that you must grapple with.


COATES: But what is your statement you want to make? How do you -- what do you want people to know about what has happened to you to stop it from happening to them?

WRIGHT: Well, one, in the most difficult times, I was never alone. My spiritual family was there, my spiritual support. You want to call it God, the universe, the angels. When I really needed it, I called on them and they were there. So, if people know you're never alone, right?

Number two, prevention. This is an issue that's happening all over the world and I was in the office for the SPEHA office, one of the hostage affairs that helped to rescue us. And they've rescued people from all over the world, right? Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, you name it. There's people that have been rescued and actually were wrongfully detained, some even who were murdered in different places and brought back.

So, this is a real issue that's happening everywhere. People are kidnapped and trafficked from the U.S., as well. So, my mentors who actually helped to bring us home, who were special in my case said, you know, so what makes you mention about spring break coming up for all the families who send their kids on spring break, just think about it.

You know, 50 percent of the countries are -- have elections this year. This is a very delicate time, you know. So, kids are working hard, they're in school, but just think about it twice, is it really worth it? They send them in some places where they could be put at risk.

COATES: Savoi Wright, welcome home. Thank you. So nice to see you.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

COATES: We have a lot more to talk about today. Unbelievable to think about what he has endured. We've got another hour of LAURA COATES LIVE coming up. We'll learn more about this RNC plan that would have made Trump the presumptive nominee. That's coming up.