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Laura Coates Live

GA Judge Drops Six Charges In Trump Election Subversion Case; DA Fani Willis Disqualification Ruling Is Expected This Week; Aaron Rodgers Shared False Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories; RNC Adding New Election Lawyers Amid Trump Takeover; Man Exonerated After 19 Years In Prison Tells His Story; Laura Coates Interviews The Oscar-Winning Short Document Filmmakers; Jury Wraps Up First Day Of Deliberations In Trial Of Father Of Michigan School Shooter. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired March 13, 2024 - 23:00   ET




LAURA COATES, CNN HOST: All right, I know some of you out there might be worried about TikTok, but the clock I'm watching is the one in Fulton County. Is Fani Willis in or out? When are we going to know? Tonight on "Laura Coates Live."

So, it's almost two weeks to the very day when the Fulton County judge, Scott McAfee, said that he would tell us his decision. What decision? Whether Fani Willis would be disqualified or not from that huge RICO and election subversion trial against Trump and his co- defendants.

Now, the judge telling CNN -- quote -- "I plan to stick to my timeline." All right, well, TikTok, we need to know because when it's going to happen is consequential.

Today, when there were rumblings from the courthouse, we all jumping in that today was the day we would actually know. But in a surprise move, Judge McAfee threw out six charges in the 41-count indictment, all having to do with allegedly soliciting officials to violate their oath of office, including three charges that mentioned Trump specifically, saying -- quote -- "As written, these six counts contain all the essential elements of the crimes but fail to allege sufficient detail regarding the nature of their commission, i.e., the underlying felony solicited."

Now, lawyers always, I mean, we overcomplicate everything, do we not? Let me translate that for you for a second. He's just saying that prosecutors were not specific enough. You're telling them that they were trying to get people to do something to violate the Constitution.

Which part of the Constitution? How were they violating it? They need to know to prepare their defense. If they don't know, they might overprepare and miss some key things, or they could miss the one thing they need to know to defend themselves. The stakes are too high for all of that. The judge called that a fatal flaw. Now, let's take a trip down memory lane for a second because one of those counts, count 28, relates to this infamous phone call, the one that then president tried to get the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to find him, say it with me now, 11,780 votes.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (voice-over): So, look, all I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.


COATES: Okay, that part, that's still in the indictment. Now, what's interesting is that after months of following along on the drama of the disqualification trial, and I have been watching all of it, we are finally getting to the meat of the matter, the actual allegations in the indictment.

So now that we know the judge thinks that they can proceed on their charges, um, who's actually going to try the case? I know how the case can be prosecuted, right? But who will prosecute it? My husband always has this saying, he always says to me, if not now, when?

Well, when it comes to this, if not her, who? Because whoever gets next, if it's not her and her team, they're not required to do what she or the grand jury wanted done. The whole thing, not just the six counts, could actually go away if her, remember, and her team are disqualified. And democracy aside, passing it on, I mean, the migraine is real.

Joining me now, CNN opinion contributor, excuse me, and former House Republican Investigative Committee counsel, Sophia Nelson, and white collar federal criminal defense attorney Rebecca LeGrand, who never overcomplicate anything. So, I'm so glad the two of you are here right now.

First of all, guys, um, this is a decisive issue. They did not specify enough. This is coming on the long line of other matters, disqualification. What's your reaction if this is actually happening now?

REBECCA LEGRAND, WHITE COLLAR FEDERAL CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yeah, I think Judge McAfee's order today was actually thoughtful and just showed a good judge doing his work. He showed that he takes the defendants' rights seriously, that he takes their arguments seriously, and he takes the law seriously.

But this was not a big win for the defendants nor was it an embarrassing mistake, in my opinion, for the prosecutors. This happens, and the judge was pretty clear about that. There are plenty of facts in this indictment, plenty to support the RICO charge, which is the biggest charge there.

[23:05:00] But for the specific solicitation of violating an oath charge, the judge said, look, I've looked at this, and even though under federal law, you could fix this with a much more easy step, under Georgia law, I think you need to add more specifics here. So, those counts for now are gone. But it's only six counts and there are multiple ways that those can be brought back --


LEGRAND: -- if they matter.

COATES: They could cure it. But the issue, of course, and many looked at this issue about disqualification, Sophia, as a way to try to undermine the credibility of the prosecution team, whether it's about competency or conflicts of interest. Is this part of that?

SOPHIA NELSON, CNN OPINION CONTRIBUTOR: Respectfully, they undermine their own credibility. I'm talking about Fani Willis and her team. I'm a fan of hers. I thought that it was incredibly brave of her to do what she did to bring these charges.

But I have been stunned, Laura, at the lack of awareness that you were going after Donald Trump, and he plays by a different set of rules. And if you thought they weren't going to check into your life and dig around and make this messy, they were naive.

And I think the judge, to your point, was very careful and meticulous. I watched the trial. The judge is a very thoughtful, methodical guy. He knows the stakes here. I don't think he's going to disqualify her. I will be shocked if he doesn't because I don't think the defense met their burden of proof. And I think he's giving you a window by saying, I don't like messy stuff. Yeah, you can get a do-over here, audience. She can actually just bring the indictment again, correct? If she's still there. They can refile those six counts, is my point. But I think the bigger issue is the judge is giving you kind of some insight into, I don't like mess, I like it clean, if you're going to make an allegation, back it up, tell me how it's rooted in law. And I think that's going to also apply to the charges that the defendants brought, that she is somehow -- has a conflict.

COATES: Well, what I saw, what I'm looking for in particular, Rebecca, is, is it an actual conflict or the appearance? Now, we all know as lawyers, you're governed by that hint of impropriety. A judge often has to recuse based on the hint of impropriety, meaning maybe doesn't pass a smell test. I don't care if it really is rotten.

But when it comes to this, it didn't seem to be so clear in the case law that it was either an appearance or it was both and or either or. Is it possible, though, he could actually disqualify based on the appearance of this?

NELSON: The law says - -

LEGRAND: I think you're going to say the same. I don't think so.

NELSON: No, the law says it has to be an actual conflict.


NELSON: It can't just be the appearance.


NELSON: That's Georgia. So --


NELSON: -- I don't know if there's a federal statute that's a complaint.

LEGRAND: It wouldn't -- it wouldn't apply here, anyway, so that's correct. There has to be an actual conflict here, and there's a reason for that. We've gone pretty far down the road here. This has to be an actual conflict that actually matters.

So, obviously, yes, the defendants were going to go fishing for whatever they could find, and they found something here. But did they find something that has -- that in any way undermines the defendant's rights to a fair trial? I don't think they --

COATES: Or ability to even get a fair trial, right?

NELSON: I don't think so.

LEGRAND: No, I don't think they did. I think the judge is going to -- we don't know.

NELSON: It was like "Peyton Place" at best. It was like a soap opera.

COATES: "Peyton Place."

NELSON: I'm old.


What do you want me to say? "Peyton Place."

LEGRAND: I go frolic and detour.

COATES: At the end, it was like, hey, something at the end, right? You know what I mean? Something -- I can't remember what it was. Anyway --

NELSON: It was a soap opera.

COATES: I'm not going to date myself either. That's fine.

NELSON: You're a baby.

COATES: I'm still remembering when Bobby Ewing turned around in the shower, and I was, like, you died.

NELSON: No, you didn't go to -- COATES: You died. You -- okay, never mind.

LEGRAND: Were you like a prosecutor in the 80s? Like, look, in L.A. law, lawyers are allowed to have relationships with each other.


LEGRAND: That's not a fundamentally, you know.

COATES: Well, in L.A. law, the standard. Shout out to Blair Underwood. I'm saying that right now.

NELSON: It still looks good.

COATES: This could go a very different path. I'm here for this rabbit hole any day of the week. Let me just focus for a second on the credibility factor here because you mentioned this, and I think we all know that the real elephant in the room, of course, is the prospect of the credibility issue, right?

Whether they were honest on the stand, whether they were honest in their testimony. Not because they necessarily didn't meet their burden, which I think they failed and came short of that, but how a jury pool might view it.

NELSON: Yeah. We talked about that on our way. I think the problem is the taint to any -- it just takes one to say, you know, this lady and her whole crew, look, they couldn't even bring the right charges on 60s counts. They were sleeping around, taking trips, sharing cash. It's a mess.

LEGRAND: I am not that worried about the jury here, though, I got to tell you, because, first of all, these are issues that the jury is not supposed to consider. As a defense attorney, I don't really necessarily believe that, but they'll be instructed that none of these matters.

NELSON: You're right.

LEGRAND: And the courts assume that jurors will follow that instruction. And moreover --

NELSON: I don't have that much faith in human beings anymore, so we'll see.

LEGRAND: Well, look, I'm with you on that, but it's a juror of people from Atlanta who elected D.A. Willis and who, I think, are going to hear a lot of evidence about what the defendants did --

NELSON: Uh-hmm.

LEGRAND: -- and I think that will be the focus when the trial happens. It's not going to be about D.A. Willis, who won't even be trying the case.

NELSON: We'll know in probably a couple days. I would imagine it's, you know, soon, where he tells us.

COATES: Well, no, we're supposed to know by Friday, right? It's why I'm like, tick-tock. I mean, I'm nosy, but also, a lot is on the line for all of this. And speaking of being, of course, elected -- thank you, Sophia. Thank you, Rebecca, so much -- the big question, will she or won't she be disqualified from prosecuting the sweeping election interference case in Georgia?


Well, that's one battle, but as Rebecca mentioned, this is an elected official, and elections are a coming, as they say, and she is facing challengers now at the ballot box.

Joining me now, one of those challengers, former Fulton County prosecutor Christian Wise Smith, had to challenge D.A. Willis in the May democratic primary elections. This is coming pretty quickly for everyone. Christian, thank you for joining us.

Based on what you heard presented in court, I wonder what your take and, of course, I'm sure knowing that you would like to be in the role she is in, maybe not trying this case, but as the D.A. at Fulton County, you might be perceived as biased in your answer. But I'll ask, anyway. Should she be disqualified from this case?

CHRISTIAN WISE SMITH, CHALLENGING FANI WILLIS IN FULTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY RACE: Well, to not give a biased answer, you know, I'll just say that this whole situation is very unfortunate. It has become very political on both sides.

And ultimately, I'm here because I want what's best for the citizens of Fulton County, what will protect and keep the citizens of Fulton County safe. We will know that once Judge McAfee makes his decision on how things will look going forward.

COATES: And you previously ran against D.A. Willis back in 2020, I believe. You did end up losing that primary. But now, you have filed to challenge her in May. Tell me about the timeline of your thought process as to why. Was it because of this particular action or had you decided long ago?

WISE SMITH: Well, I didn't make this decision lightly. And ultimately, it came down to what was best for the citizens of Fulton County. And you're right, I ran four years ago, but, you know, I'm uniquely positioned to take over this office because of my background.

I grew up in the justice system. I grew up seeing my mother and my grandmother arrested, in and out of the system. I have several family members and friends that I've seen incarcerated. My mom lost custody of me growing up. I was kicked out of high school. I never thought that I would finish high school, let alone become an attorney and be in a position where I'm talking to somebody like you.

So, I know what folks going through the system are experiencing. I think that my new innovative and fresh ideas can help Fulton County citizens, you know, ultimately be safe. That's what this is about. And I'll make decision after Judge McAfee makes his decision on whether or not to fully go forward.

COATES: Well, thank you for telling us about your personal journey. I think it is very illuminating, and it is completely inspiring for so many people, Christian, to hear about why you have gotten and chosen the path you have. I thank you for being so personal this evening.

You know, the personal aspects of D.A. Willis's life have been on full display, as you can imagine. That's part of the reason why there has been this trial. It's really the entirety in many respects of that reason. It's a very high-profile case. If the office is disqualified, it would have to go to a different body, not even in the office.

Are you surprised that they would have taken such a risk like this to have a relationship with the lead prosecutor of the case?

WISE SMITH: Look, I didn't jump in this race to throw any personal attacks at D.A. Willis. I'll just say it's very unfortunate that her personal life has become so public. And, you know, I feel for her in that sense. And, you know, I'm not going to make any comments on, you know, what her personal life is.

You know, my position being here today is all about the job and it's all about the citizens of Fulton County. It's all about Atlanta influencing everything from hip hop culture and music and TV and film. And now, there may be an opportunity for us to influence the criminal justice system, not only in Fulton County, but throughout the South. So that's why I'm here. And, you know, I'll let you, guys, you know, talk about her personal life.

COATES: Well, Ray Charles did say that Georgia is on our minds. Well, that wasn't exactly his phrase. That's how I paraphrase it tonight. Christian Wise Smith, before I let you go, though, let's say this case does not stay with this D.A.'s office, is it a case that you would pursue?

WISE SMITH: We all saw what happened. We heard the phone call. We saw what happened on January 6th, 2021. You know, clearly, there is enough here to say, you know, something was done wrong. It's definitely worth investigating and looking into. And should I become the next D.A. of Fulton County and should the case still be in the office when I'm there, then we'll definitely look forward on how to handle it best.

COATES: Well, a grand jury has already given some instructions. I wonder if you will follow them. Christian Wise Smith, thank you so much for joining us today.

WISE SMITH: Thank you for having me.

COATES: Next, what you may not know about the man at the top of that shortlist for RFK, Jr.'s running mates, how New York Jets quarterback and potential vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Rodgers, has shared some pretty wild and unfounded theories about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in private conversations.



COATES: Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. seems to be narrowing his search for a running mate, one of his prospects for vice president, New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Now, CNN is learning tonight that in private conversations, Rodgers has shared conspiracy theories, falsely claiming the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting was not real.


Back in 2013, when CNN's Pamela Brown was covering the Kentucky Derby, she met Aaron Rodgers. And Brown says in conversations with him, Rodgers attacked the news media, claiming important stories were being covered up.

He then brought up the Sandy Hook shooting and said the media was intentionally ignoring that the shooting was, he claimed, an inside job by the government. Now, when Brown asked for evidence, he shared conspiracy theories that had been disproven. Rodgers falsely claimed to Brown that there were men in black in the woods by the school and asked if she thought that was odd.

CNN has also spoken to another source who would like to remain anonymous in order to avoid harassment. They had a similar encounter with Aaron Rodgers. This person said Rodgers claimed that -- quote -- "Sandy Hook never happened. All those children never existed. They were all actors." Now, Rodgers declined CNN's request for comment.

Here with me now, former senior advisor for the Biden 2020 campaign, Alencia Johnson, also CNN political commentator and Republican strategist Alice Stewart.

I have to tell you, any time there is a mention of Sandy Hook, as a mommy, I just -- I remember my son had just been born, my oldest, and just how horrific it was and traumatizing for a new mother, for a human being, for the entire nation, let alone the families of those affected. Alice, when you hear this narrative that seems to keep popping up, particularly in political spaces, it's -- it's beyond.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. The Sandy Hook tragedy was gut-wrenching for all of us. It's almost like it was yesterday. And I think of many presidential moments throughout our lifetime of president, one of the most compelling presidential moments was when President Obama was speaking about that in the briefing room, fighting back tears --


STEWART: -- and choking up as he was talking about these children. It's a devastating tragedy. We're still coming to terms with this.

But to say this was some kind of an inside job and was not real is -- it's disgusting and it shouldn't happen. And it's beyond a conspiracy theory. It is an outright lie and it's an insult to the families involved. And I think for Aaron Rodgers or anyone to claim this didn't happen is disgusting and insulting. And so, I think promoting that theory and that line of conspiracy, we shouldn't have any part of it.

COATES: I'm curious as to why he hasn't come out very vocally to say, no, that's not what I said or this did not happen the way it's being relayed. I was expecting that to happen. Obviously, it's his right to either comment or not and on his own schedule. But it is stunning, given his name is being thrown around right now as a potential VP pick.

ALENCIA JOHNSON, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER, BIDEN 2020 CAMPAIGN: Yeah. I mean, I have to think about who exactly is he trying to appeal to. Right? Who is RFK trying to appeal to?

COATES: That's the question.

JOHNSON: There is a faction of, I'll be honest, the Republican Party that believes in a lot of these conspiracy theories, that listens to the Joe Reagans of the world, the Joe Rogans of the world, who tout these types of conspiracies.

And it's interesting because third party candidates, as we know, aren't helpful to Democrats. But the path that RFK is going down with an Aaron Rodgers seems to appeal to a segment of the Republican Party base.

And I'm also frustrated and troubled. I actually agree with you on the troubling comments from Aaron Rodgers.

COATES: That's the frustrating part. She's like, I'm frustrated and troubled, I actually agree with you.


JOHNSON: Of course, I do agree with you. Alice and I don't always agree on a lot of things, but I agree with you on how sick and vile it is for him to spout these conspiracy theories.

I'm frustrated because, at a time, we know that gun violence is the leading killer of children in this country, right? When we should be having conversations around gun control.

Here's someone who is potentially a running mate, which that in itself I can't take too seriously, but is a potential running mate that is talking about these conspiracy theories and minimizing the impact that this is having on families every day in this country.

COATES: He's but one of the names mentioned. Another person is Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who, you know, I'm from Minnesota, he was the governor. And, you know, people can look down the nose for only so long until all of a sudden, you're calling him governor and you've got people like Tulsi Gabbard on this list, excuse me, Senator Rand Paul, possibly Andrew Yang.

Now, we don't know the extent of these conversations, if they're happening or who's taking it seriously as the recipient of a request. But I'll tell you about the polling here. He is consistently polling at 15% nationally. He is not going to be able to get a majority, obviously, win the presidency on that alone. But do you think he presents a threat for either candidate in this rematch, Biden or Trump?

STEWART: He certainly does. And look, those numbers are consistent across the board. That's not a snapshot in time. That is a trend. And this is in the key battleground states. He's also polling very well.

Look, if I were to be a betting woman, we'll come back at the end of the month, my money would be on someone more like Tulsi Gabbard, who is a lot less toxic and polarizing in many regards. Look, I attended one of RFK, Jr.'s events.


I did a magazine article on him. His crowd is across the board: Black, white, young, old, Republican, Democrat. He is going to pull from both sides. And the issues that he focuses on, that he has talked about, that he's promoting, talks a lot about homelessness.

He talks about restoring the middle class. He talks about ending chronic disease. He talks about unraveling the war machine and getting corporations out of government. Those are issues that resonate with a lot of people. And he is out there making his case day after day.

And I'll tell you what, this Aaron Rodgers and Jesse Ventura stuff is crazy. But from RFK, Jr.'s standpoint, this is earned media, and this is what you do if you're not getting news, you're not making headlines. You generate something that will get people talking. We're talking about this tonight.

And my money is not on Aaron Rodgers, but it is on the fact that they're using this as an opportunity to generate earned media and get his name out there. We'll wait to see who he names as his V.P.

COATES: Let me give you the quick last word, Alencia.

JOHNSON: You know, that extremism, though, that he continues to paint out here, I hear you, he has different folks at his rallies, but we are in a primary where folks are saying, well, actually, we're out of the primary, but we're in an election where folks are saying they want some new energy. And so, they're listening to ideas.

But as they continue to listen to RFK, they hear the extremism, right? They hear the extremism on issues that they care about, particularly around health care. Him being a huge anti-vaxxer, I think, is a concern for a lot of voters.

There are going to be a lot of issues that he continues to talk about. I think as voters continue to get to know him, I don't think he would hurt Democrats as much as people think he would. I think he actually could pull from the Republican Party.

COATES: Well, we shall see. Ladies, thank you both. Alencia and Alice, I always love when you come on. Thank you.

STEWART: Thanks, Laura. COATES: A major gut renovation is going on at the Republican National Committee. I'm not talking about changes to the building. No, I'm talking about a takeover by the former president, Donald Trump, because as of this week, his team has been reshaping the RNC's priorities, oh, and laying off dozens of staffers.

Among those priority shifts, focusing on one of Trump's favorite and false refrains, election fraud. And amid all those charges, one of Trump's lawyers, who has been a key election denier, now has a brand spanking new title at the RNC. Here's what it is: Senior counsel for election integrity.

Yep, senior counsel for election integrity. Her name is Christina Bobb. She also worked at the far-right "One America News Network," and she has pushed, well, theories like this.


CHRISTINA BOBB, TRUMP ATTORNEY AND FORMER OAN HOST: Do you honestly expect President Trump to concede a race he knows he won?

It's becoming glaringly apparent that Donald Trump absolutely crushed Joe Biden in the election. The American people resoundingly choose Donald J. Trump, and Democrats are trying to steal it.

They hope that by bombarding us with this news that Biden is the president-elect, we'll all just give up and go on with our lives and allow the Democrats to steal the election.


COATES: Well, to top that off, she's also written an entire book promoting Trump's election lies.

Joining me now, elections technology expert Ken Block. Now, he was hired by the Trump 2020 campaign to find voter fraud. His new book is "Disproven: My Unbiased Search for Voter Fraud for the Trump Campaign, the Data that Shows Why He Lost, and How We Can Improve Our Elections."

Ken, thank you so much for being here today. First, I want to get your reaction to the fact that Christina Bobb is -- who has been a prominent election denier and denies that Biden has won this election, is now the senior counsel for election integrity, of all things.


COATES: What does that tell you?

BLOCK: A lot depends on what the interpretation of election integrity really means. If it's substitute language for election denialism, that won't be very productive for us.

If it's through election integrity efforts to make our elections better across the board, I have a whole bunch of suggestions I'd like to make to her on what we could do, because we could really do some things that could help to make our elections better and fairer for everybody. I think it is time to do that.

COATES: I think that's an important point. I'd like to hear some of what those would be. But, you know, you were actually hired by the Trump campaign to the day after, by the way, the 2020 election, to find voter fraud. Take us through what you found and perhaps most importantly, did not.

BLOCK: Yeah. I was asked to data mine, look for deceased voters, look for evidence of duplicate voters, someone who cast a vote in one of the swing states and also in a different state. That was what my original contract was to do.

And we didn't find much. We found some few dead voters, a couple hundred duplicate votes across the swing states, not enough to matter. And my job was to find data that I could go to court with and defend. And we utterly could find nothing like that.

The campaign also asked me to evaluate claims of fraud that came to their attention, that others brought to the table.


And I looked at fraud claims from Sidney Powell. I looked at fraud claims from John Eastman. And I was able to prove with data that they were false. I convinced the campaign's lawyers, Alex Cannon in particular, that every one of the claims that came to me was false. I showed him why.

He went to Mark Meadows and said, we evaluated every claim that was sent to us. Those that were devolved data, we looked at them. We know they're false. Here's why they were false. We looked for fraud. We didn't find very many deceased voters. We just didn't find anything.

And Mark Meadows's response to that was, that means there's no there there when it came to voter fraud, and then we know that Mark Meadows took that information straight to Trump.

COATES: And yet this didn't end the assault on the elections, didn't end the thought process, the narrative. It sounds as though they wanted you to reverse engineer something. But there was no there there.

BLOCK: There was no there there. And to be clear, I wouldn't have signed the contract if I was custom delivering something that they asked for. I told them that I had no interest in doing that.

I also told them before I signed the contract that in my 10 years of looking at election data, I'd never seen a hint of what I knew we needed to find for them. And I said, I just want to let you know, I'm not making a promise that I can deliver what you want.

COATES: I know we have to go, but I am curious. Could you mention the idea of what you would suggest to actually help ensure people believed in the fairness and freeness of our elections and election security more broadly? What's the number one thing that you think is important? BLOCK: Well, the number one thing to make our elections better across the board, we have to end gerrymandering across the board. Our elections are not competitive. Without competitive elections, we get more extreme candidates because they're in safe seats. If we -- competition fixes a lot of problems in our country. Our elections lack competition, and that's at the root cause, I think, of a lot of our political


COATES: Well, it looks like Gordon Gekko was wrong. Greed is not good. Ken Block, thank you so much. Again, his book is called "Disproven," a really important read. Thank you.

BLOCK: Thank you.

COATES: Next, he was a good Samaritan who helped to stop a woman who seemed to be in distress, only to be shot by police and face a wrongful conviction that get this, sent him to prison for 19 years. Well, now he's free and here to talk about his story. Termaine Hicks is my guest.



COATES: We have a very special case to bring to you tonight in our exonerated series. So, we tell the stories of people who have spent years in prison after being wrongly convicted. This is about a good Samaritan. His name, Termaine Hicks, and he'll join me in just a moment.

He spent 19 years in prison after being shot by police and falsely accused of rape. All the way back in 2001, the then-26-year-old Hicks says that he heard a woman who was screaming in a Philadelphia alley. He stopped to help her and called 911. Police then shot him three times after arriving at the scene. And during his trial, police testified that Hicks reached for a gun after he was found raping a woman. He was ultimately sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Now, throughout it all, he maintained his innocence. The Innocence Project eventually got involved, and new analysis completely undercut that police testimony. Medical evidence shows Hicks was actually shot in the back, and court records show the gun found on Hicks was registered to another Philadelphia police officer. The jury also never saw evidence that backed up what Hicks was saying.

He was a free man in December 2020 after the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office vacated his conviction.

Termaine Hicks joins me now along with Vanessa Potkin, the director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project and the attorney who secured Termaine's exoneration in the year 2020. Thank you so much, both of you, for being here.

Termaine, just to even hear what has happened is mind-boggling. People would not even believe that this was -- if it was a fiction story, they wouldn't believe it, let alone what's happening to you and what has happened. You have been out of prison now for more than three years. What is this like for you?

TERMAINE HICKS, EXONERATED AFTER 19 YEARS FOR CRIME HE DIDN'T COMMIT: It's life. You know, it's just me enjoying the life that was put on hold for 20 years.

COATES: I remember you said, I was reading about this, the day you were sentenced, Termaine, you told the judge, an innocent man can't sit in jail for long. And yet there you were. How did the process for fighting for your innocence begin?

HICKS: It began the moment I woke up in the hospital handcuffed to a bed, you know, even though I was in the condition that I was in. I knew that the fight had started. I survived. And I really had to just strap on my bootstraps that tight right then and there. So, I was fighting from day one, you know. And I went to -- I went to a trial, a jury trial, you know. All these police officers paraded up in there and, you know, told their troops, which was a lie. And I was --

COATES: What was it like hearing them tell those lies? I mean, sitting there knowing that what they were saying was not true, what was going through your mind? I mean, it must have been fear, anger, resentment, hurt.

HICKS: It was -- I was -- I was disgusted, I was sad, I wanted to dive over the table at times.


I cried because I couldn't believe it. At those moments, I was like, who the hell they are talking about? They're not talking about me. But they were.

COATES: And Vanessa, once the Innocence Project picked up this case, I mean, how did you go about proving Termaine's innocence in the face of a trial with police officers testifying the way they did?

VANESSA POTKIN, DIRECTOR OF SPECIAL LITIGATION, INNOCENCE PROJECT: Well, the officers in Termaine's case testified that they shot Termaine after they got on the scene, interrupted an attack, and Termaine lunged at them with a gun. And he has always maintained that story was inaccurate, was false.

And when we started to review his case, really what -- what got us interested is that there were a lot of 9-1-1 calls reporting seeing the assailant, you know, take the victim into this alleyway, and they all reported the perpetrator wearing a gray-hooded sweatshirt.

Police claimed that they got on the scene, and as soon as they got there, Termaine was the assailant, and they shot him after he tried to attack them. But guess what? He didn't have a gray-hooded sweatshirt, and he didn't match the description that had been reported at the assailant.

And so, you know, police jumped to the conclusion that he was the assailant when they got to the scene because he was in the alley. But of course, he was in the alley trying to, you know, help the victim. And they realized their mistake. That should have been the end of it.

But instead of acknowledging that they shot an innocent man, once they realized he didn't match the description, he was unarmed, they initiated a cover up. They planted a gun on him. They said this gun belonged to him. And, of course, as pointed out, it was registered to a Philadelphia police officer.

And through forensic evidence, we were able to establish that they lied about what happened because, in fact, Termaine was shot three times from the back.

COATES: It's unbelievable to hear. I mean, my heart is rising and falling with every word the two of you are saying, and thinking about how many years you spent as a result of what they said happened.

Vanessa, a really big part of Termaine's case has involved what you did or did not know about the police investigating his matter. Tell me what the Innocence Project is doing to try to address transparency.

POTKIN: We are trying to work to make sure that police disciplinary records are accessible. Had the jury known at the time of trial about some of the officer's records involved, for example, the officer who claimed that he found a weapon on Termaine, he had many allegations of planting evidence or other types of misconduct -- in fact, during his career, he had shot six civilians. If you just think of that, most officers never even discharged their weapon once.

And so, if this information had been available at the time of trial, the jury would have certainly looked at their testimony much differently. The officer who planted the weapon in Termaine's case is still on the force.

COATES: You're kidding me.


COATES: How is that possible? He is -- it has been confirmed that he, in fact, planted evidence, and he is still on the force?

POTKIN: There is a big problem with accountability, which I think that, you know, we've seen time and again from cases where we have officers-involved shootings, where we, you know, see basically officers commit a homicide and they are, you know, put on desk duty or still, you know, receiving benefits or still actually on the force, hired back.

COATES: You know, we've reached out to the Philadelphia Police Department and have not heard back. But that is an astonishing statement and one, frankly, that I've often heard in other cases regarding how difficult it is to remove an officer, either from due process reasons or for the police union and the power or a variety of other factors.

So, people should absolutely know who is on their force. We entrust them with so much. And if they're not honorable, they need not be there.

Termaine Hicks, what a remarkable human being you are. Thank you so much for allowing us to meet you this way and for literally stepping up. And Vanessa Potkin, thank you so much for all that you have done to ensure that he could be exonerated. I appreciate you both so much. And thank you for allowing us to share your stories here today. Termaine Hicks, Vanessa Potkin, thank you so much. We'll be right back.



COATES: All right, so we heard all about the glitz and the glam and the Barbenheimer of it all during the weekend's Oscars. But there was a really important category and winner that I want to remind you about. It was called the "Last Repair Shop," and it took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film.

It goes inside the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the last school districts in the entire nation that provides free working musical instruments for their students, and it focuses on the unsung heroes who repair and maintain those very instruments.


UNKNOWN: When the instrument breaks, there's a student without an instrument. Not one, not in our city.


UNKNOWN (voice-over): We know it could change their whole life.

UNKNOWN: Even if they don't know me, I'm part of that.


COATES: I love that. And joining me now, the Oscar winners behind the film, Ben Proudfoot, excuse me, and Kris Bowers. Oh, look, they got their Oscars with them. I'm not going to blame you. I would do the same.


They'll be here for that. I have four people on the screen right now. Oscar, Oscar, and then, of course, Ben and Kris.


Thank you both for being here. Congratulations. I have got to ask you, what was it like hearing your name called?

KRIS BOWERS, CO-DIRECTOR, "THE LAST REPAIR SHOP": Yeah, it's pretty surreal. Thanks for having us. But yeah, I just feel like the time that the -- they announced the name of the film, I kissed my wife, and then tried to, you know, catch up with Porche getting down the aisle to the stage, and then blacked out until I saw my wife at the end of the speech, pretty much.


COATES: That was the student who was walking in that beautiful periwinkle dress. She was the cutest thing ever walking up and on the stage. I was so excited for her.

I mean, Kris, you actually played an instrument in the L.A. public school district as a kid. Why was it important for you and of course, Ben, to tell this story?

BOWERS: Yeah, for me, I think it was a few things. One, music has always been a way for me to process what I was moving through in my life. You know, I really fell in love with music and fell in love with the piano when I realized that I could be angry or be sad or have these emotions that I had a difficult time articulating verbally, and I could play them on piano and move through them. And so, it was really this therapeutic device.

But I never considered how the instruments I played all through my schooling were being taken care of and kept in good repair. So, when Ben told me about the project, that was the thing that made me want to be a part of it, was connecting to this organization that had this unseen hand and making sure that I was, you know, protected and that these instruments were protected and taken care of.

COATES: I mean, it is fascinating, Ben. I mean, people like the great John Williams, we know his great music soundtracks, Kendrick Lamar. They went through this program. I mean, in many ways, the music that we know and love would look entirely different if it did not have services like this, right?

BEN PROUDFOOT, CO-DIRECTOR, "THE LAST REPAIR SHOP": Yeah. So, you know, L.A. is the recording capital of the world. More popular music is recorded here in Los Angeles than any other place in the world. And yeah, like you said, you know, John Williams, who inspired Chris to become a composer, inspired me hugely as a young person to become a filmmaker, graduated from North Hollywood High School in 1950.

So, you think about the shop, this windowless workshop south in downtown where over 80,000, now 130,000 instruments passed through over the course of time. These are the same instruments that were handled and used by generations of great musicians that have come here, but also by people who didn't become professional musicians --

COATES: Uh-hmm.

PROUDFOOT: -- but for whom music was the reason they came to school or for that's how they learned, you know, discipline or collaboration or how to listen. And the rewards on that are harder to find and suss out. But having made this film and screened it for so many people here in Los Angeles, we know it created a profound effect in so many people's lives and continues to do so.

COATES: I'm so glad you said that because I think we highlight so many times those who go on to excel in a particular field as opposed to thinking about the intangibles and what it means to be able to, within yourself, create something.

And for a child to hear themselves having created something, what it instills in other ways. I'm going to tell my kids, my daughter, who's lugging back and forth a cello to her school, and my son, his saxophone, I'm going to share that moment in time with them and make sure they know, as they're probably in some ways cursing my name, stepping on every sidewalk crack to break their mother's back as kids often do.


I'm reminded of that very thing. Ben Proudfoot, Cris Bowers, congratulations to you both. I hope you carry that Oscar to Target (ph), to the gas station, everywhere and, of course, to that last repair shop.

PROUDFOOT: Thank you so much. And if anybody wants to make donation to our $15 million capital campaign, can help save the shop and create an apprenticeship program for the next generation of repair people.

COATES: Thank you so much. And congratulations. We'll be right back.

PROUDFOOT: Thank you.

BOWERS: Thank you.



COATES: Is the father of Michigan high school shooter, Ethan Crumbley, partially responsible for the actions of his son? Well, that's what a jury is now trying to figure out. Deliberations in James Crumbley's involuntary manslaughter trial are underway.

Now, you'll remember that his son killed four students in a shooting rampage at Oxford High School in 2021. His wife, Jennifer Crumbley, was convicted of the same involuntary manslaughter charges just last month.

Now, prosecutors argue that James Crumbley missed the warning signs from his son and failed to secure the gun that he used in the shooting. But the defense says there was no evidence that he had any idea what his son was going to do.


KAREN MCDONALD, OAKLAND COUNTY PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: James Crumbley was presented with the easiest, most glaring opportunities to prevent the deaths of these four students.


And he did nothing. He did nothing. He did nothing over and over and over again. And the evidence shows that. MARIELL LEHMAN, ATTORNEY FOR JAMES CRUMBLEY: James Crumbley had no idea what his son was capable of, he had no idea what his son was planning, and he had absolutely no idea that his son had access to those firearms.


COATES: James Crumbley chose not to testify in his own defense, unlike his wife, you recall. Another key difference in his trial has been the focus on his decision to buy a gun for his son as a gift just four days before the shooting, and how that weapon was stored. The jury deliberated for about an hour and a half today. It took a different jury in Jennifer Crumbley's trial, about 11 hours to reach a verdict.

Thank you all for watching. Our coverage continues.