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Anti-Mask Parents Laugh at Student; RFK Widow Rejects Release of Assassin; Angela Barry is Interviewed about Sirhan's Parole; John Cox is Interviewed about the California Election. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired September 09, 2021 - 08:30   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: An 11th grader in Tennessee advocating for a mask mandate was mocked at a school board meeting after he described how his grandmother died from COVID. In a video posted online, a woman behind the student laughs, and others in the audience seem to jeer.


GRADY KNOX, RUTHERFORD COUNTY, TN, STUDENT: I'm worried about my family. If I get COVID, I'm going to bring it to my family. And I talk to my grandparents a lot. They're higher risk than me, so I don't want to give them COVID. This time last year my grandmother, who was a former teacher at the Rutherford County School System, died of COVID because someone wasn't wearing a mask. This is a very --


KNOX: This is a very --



KNOX: This is a --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, guys, we're here to act professional.

Please, just -- sir, go ahead.

KNOX: Thank you.

This is an avoidable issue. And by not wearing masks in schools, it's irresponsible. We're killing people. This is not something that we should be doing for the education of our students.

Thank you.


KEILAR: Joining me now is the student that you just saw speaking, Grady Knox, and his classmate, Will Severn.

Grady, thank you so much for coming on this morning. I just have to tell you, my heart hurts when I hear the responses you were talking about, obviously something that is so incredibly meaningful and painful. And I just wonder what was going through your mind during that moment.

GRADY KNOX, PRO=-MASK STUDENT MOCKED AT SCHOOL BOARD MEETING: My brain was just like all over the place because all -- I could hear them behind me, but I -- they -- it felt like the two things weren't connected because I couldn't understand why people would, like, react like that to such a -- to a statement that I made that's like so personal, you know?

KEILAR: No, incredibly. And so you were just trying to make a point of what was at stake, right?

KNOX: Exactly.

KEILAR: So, Will, I know that you have been advocating for masking in schools for months now. Tell us about what has motivated you to speak up.

WILL SEVERN, STUDENT ADVOCATING MASK MANDATE IN SCHOOL: Well, thank you both for letting us come on the air today. This is an issue that affects not just us, but students across the nation.

Recently over the past few weeks, I've seen that a lot of students, not just at our county schools, but across Tennessee have had to make a decision, and that is that, should they prioritize their personal health or their academic well-being because right now a lot of the options available to students are limited.

Twenty percent of students were quarantined just last week alone. And because Tennessee has no distance learning, they were likely receiving no real-time instruction. And so sometimes they're hesitant to report symptoms or contacts outside of school for fear of falling behind in class. And that's something no student should have to do.

KEILAR: And so the county schools there sent CNN a statement about masking policies that says this. We required masks last year, but the board voted previously to make masks recommended, but not required for this school year. It will be up to the board to decide whether to make any changes to the mask policy.

Grady, what is it like being in school? What is the environment like?

KNOX: I -- it's -- it's really weird because you'll walk into a class some days and half the kids will be gone from contact tracing because there's so many kids that are getting COVID and so many kids that sit around with them that it's spreading so quick that, like, I'll -- and the other part is the vice principal is the one that's contact tracing everyone. So kids will get called to the vice principal's office and everyone is just like, oh, I guess they're getting contact traced. And the vice principal knows this and has to specify when it's contact tracing and when it's not because students stress out about this.

KEILAR: Of course. I mean and that's the tell if it's one person doing it, right?

You know, you said you were sort of disconnected from the moment, Grady, as you were saying what you said about your grandmother and people behind you were laughing. You know, now you have this perspective. You're not disconnected. You know what they were doing. What is your message to those parents who laughed at you?

KNOX: I just hope that they see that they've given me this chance now to speak in front of the entire nation and tell about how I believe masks are something that is really essential for schools to stay open.


And I hope that they see that this is really just benefiting me and people that believe in masks all across the country.

KEILAR: Well, Grady, I'm so sorry for your loss and for the loss of your family of your grandmother. I know she would be very proud of you for what you are doing. And Will Severn as well. Thank you so much for coming on and talking to us, both of you.

KNOX: Thank you.

SEVERN: Thank you.

BERMAN: Impressive young men there.

KEILAR: Right.

BERMAN: Up next, RFK's widow says she believes her husband's killer should remain behind bars, not paroled. The assassin's attorney joins us live.


KEILAR: Ethel Kennedy, of course the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, says her husband's assassin should not have the opportunity to terrorize again.


Sirhan Sirhan was recommended for parole last month. Ethel Kennedy says his inhumanity has caused enough suffering for her family and the country.

And Tom Foreman is joining us now for a closer look.

This got a lot of attention when he was recommended for parole. TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it was like a bolt from the blue.

Think about it this way, if Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated, and if he'd been elected president, and he had a very real chance of doing that, everything we know about our politics today could be different.

Now the question is, how much should that or should not that be considered when you think about the fate of the man who pulled the trigger?


FOREMAN (voice over): He should not have the opportunity to terrorize again. Those words in a written statement from 93-year-old Ethel Kennedy, who scrawled in her own hand at the bottom, he should not be paroled. Who is she talking about? Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated her husband, Senator Robert Kennedy, more than a half century ago.

SIRHAN SIRHAN, CONVICTED MURDER OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Obviously I was there. But I don't remember the exact moment. I don't remember pulling my gun out of my body or whatever it was located, and I don't remember aiming at any human being. I don't remember any of that.

FOREMAN: The Palestinian-born gunman, who said long said he remembers almost nothing of the attack, has been denied release more than a dozen times. But now the two-person California parole board wants him out from behind bars, creating a firestorm.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: My thanks to all of you. And now it's on to Chicago and let's win there.

FOREMAN: In 1968, Kennedy had just won California in his quest to become the Democratic nominee for president. He was celebrating at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he passed through the kitchen and shots rang out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His condition, I don't know. His wife, Ethel, is with him.

FOREMAN: Kennedy was mortally wounded. The gunman was grabbed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His name appears to be Sirhan, s-a-r-h-a-n, Sirhan.

FOREMAN: Sirhan was convicted and sentenced to die.

SIRHAN: The reality of this whole thing hit me when I was on death row facing my own death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So how many months later was that, or years?

SIRHAN: Oh, I would say maybe -- maybe a -- maybe a year or two years.

FOREMAN: In the 1970s, his sentence was commuted to life behind bars and six of the Kennedy children issued a statement in late August saying he should stay there, noting this wasn't just a personal tragedy. Sirhan Sirhan committed a crime against our nation and its people.

Yet two of Kennedy's surviving sons support parole, including Robert Kennedy, Jr., who has previously questioned Sirhan's guilt, saying he believed his father would also favor release because of Sirhan's impressive record of rehabilitation.

Governor Gavin Newsom will have the final word. He won't say how he's leaning, but --

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D-CA): The only photograph you'll see in my office is a picture of Bobby Kennedy and my father just days before Bobby Kennedy was murdered.


FOREMAN: This is a tricky thing for Newsom. He's facing a recall election out there. He has presented himself as a champion of criminal justice reform. And he has commuted some other sentences.

But it's also tricky because of this. When Sirhan Sirhan committed this murder, Gavin Newsom was a toddler. So the sense of history for some people in this country is very strong around this case. And for others, it truly is just history that they're trying to deal with.


Tom Foreman, great report. Thank you so much.

BERMAN: And joining me now is the attorney for Sirhan Sirhan, Angela Berry.

Thank you so much for being with us, Counselor.

What do you say to Ethel Kennedy, the widow of RFK, who has implored California not to release your client?


So, good morning.

Mrs. Kennedy lost her husband. She lost the father of her children. The country lost an icon.

However, we are a country of laws, not a country of emotions. And California law dictates that if a prisoner has served his minimum period of parole, which Sirhan has, if that prisoner does not pose an unreasonable, current risk of danger to society, the law presumes the person to be released.

BERMAN: In terms of a danger to society, does this incentivize would- be political assassins to commit atrocities? They can look at this and say, you know what, we'll get out eventually.

BERRY: Well, you know, whether it incentivizes one person or another, of course we all condone that sort of behavior. However, it's important to remember, this was 53 years ago and Mr. Sirhan committed 49 of those years, the last 49 years, he dedicated to his rehabilitation.


And the psychologist and the psychiatrist who were employed by the California Department of Corrections for over 30 years have given him positive assessments with respect to risk. So this isn't somebody who committed a crime and is getting right out.

Fifty-three years, over half a century, and he has demonstrated to the board his rehabilitation, including recent correctional officers wrote letters on his behalf and the board was very impacted by the fact that current correctional officers who work with Mr. Sirhan on a day-to-day basis stuck their necks out to write letters in support of his release based on the behavior that they see on a day-to-day basis, as well as being very knowledgeable about the plethora of rehabilitative efforts he's made over the last 49 years of his incarceration.

BERMAN: Understood, although it is worthy of note that Robert F. Kennedy has been dead for all of those years, again, in terms of rehabilitation.

Look, what do you anticipate a decision -- what decision do you anticipate coming from Governor Gavin Newsom?

BERRY: I don't want to speculate what the governor is going to do. The governor will have 30 days to make that decision after the full parole board either accepts, rejects, or amends the recommendation of the two-member panel.

We will wait to see what happens. If it does not go in the direction that the panel recommended, that is not our last course of -- recourse. We can then file documents with the courts.

BERMAN: Angela Berry, I do appreciate you being with us and answering our questions on this. Thank you very much.

BERRY: Thank you.

KEILAR: Coming up, he brought a bear on the campaign trail and was served a subpoena in the middle of a debate. We will speak with the Republican hopeful vying to unseat Governor Gavin Newsom.



KEILAR: Just five days to go now before the California recall election, and Governor Gavin Newsom is saving nothing to chance. He is enlisting the help from the biggest names in the Democratic Party, including former President Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris.

And joining us now is John Cox. He is one of the many Republican candidates that is hoping to unseat Newsom. Sir, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

JOHN COX (R), CALIFORNIA SPECIAL ELECTION GOV. CANDIDATE: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me on.

KEILAR: So, as you are well aware, your Republican opponent, Larry Elder, is very much in first place. Second place is a very distant second at this point in time. Larry Elder is now pushing baseless voter fraud allegations. He said this to reporters yesterday in Los Angeles.

Quote, what I believe is that no matter what they do, and I believe that there might very well be shenanigans as it were in the 2020 election, no matter what they do, so many Californians are angry about what's going on. We have a voter integrity board all set up. Most of these are lawyers. So when people hear things, they contact us. We're going to file lawsuits in a timely fashion.

This is straight out of the Trump playbook. This is straight -- this is the expressway to the big lie.

COX: Well --

KEILAR: What do you say about him saying that?

COX: Well, I'm going to give you a slight correction, by the way. Undecided is running away with this race. Mr. Elder may be leading among people who've made a decision.

KEILAR: Well, sure. Yes.

COX: But something like 46 percent have not made a decision. And Mr. Elder can talk about all those things, but I'm talking about getting housing affordable in this state, fixing homelessness, making sure that we have water and electricity, making sure that we have wildfires under control, that we protect people from (INAUDIBLE).

KEILAR: OK, John, I understand and I want to give you a chance to talk about that. But this is -- this is essential. This is the bedrock of democracy. So we need to talk about this.

COX: Listen --

KEILAR: What do you say about him raising the specter of this is a rigged election and I'm going to file lawsuits?

COX: National politics doesn't have anything to do with this. We had an election in November when a lot of wild radical initiatives that Gavin Newsom endorsed, like a $10 billion tax increase, like ending cash bail. We should talk about --

KEILAR: Sir, is this OK? I mean this kind of behavior, raising the specter of --

COX: Listen, you want to get into the partisan -- KEILAR: You said national -- you said national politics -- no, no, you

said national politics has nothing to do with this, OK, in this California recall race, he is raising the specter of voter integrity.

COX: I was answering your -- I was answering your question, and that is that all of these initiatives were defeated in November in California. And if the elections were not valid in November, the -- I'm sure the liberal majority in Sacramento would have made sure that those initiatives passed.

I don't know what happened in other states, but those elections in California were probably fine in November and I think they're going to be fine now. I think a lot -- the give and take between Newsom and Elder is all about all these issues that really don't matter as much to the people of California.

They care about water, electricity, the cost of living, the tax burden. They care about having an affordable home for their families. They care about homelessness. These are the issues that we ought to be addressing.

I'm a businessman. I'm not a radio personality. I'm not a provocateur. I'm not a politician. I'm someone who is running for governor to fix this state, to get this state back to a livable level. And Mr. Newsom is running around trying to scare everybody, claiming that the governor candidates are all going to kill everybody and he's not addressing these very important issues.

And they need to be addressed. They need to be fixed. And I hope people think about, when they vote, having a business person that has developed a successful business for 40 years and is going to fix this problem. I'm the only CPA running. I'm the only businessman. And I'm running to fix all these problems in California that Mr. Newsom has made worse.

KEILAR: Last month you were served a subpoena on the debate stage.

COX: Right. You love to talk about that.

KEILAR: You know were --

COX: Right.

KEILAR: Well, it was, you know, it was quite a moment.

COX: Yes, everyone was in shock. Yes, everyone was shocked.

KEILAR: You were on -- you were on the debate stage with other candidates there in this Republican recall.

A political advertising firm alleges that you failed to pay $100,000 in political ads and other costs from your 2018 gubernatorial run against Newsom. What is -- what is the latest on this?

COX: Everybody got paid from that campaign except one bad apple, this guy, who decided to make a big show at a debate. [08:55:01]

You know, I'm not going to pay people who do a bad job, and I'm not going to do that as governor. I'm going to make sure that every penny that's spent in California is spent efficiently and productively.

KEILAR: Did -- did he work for you, though? Did he do the --

COX: I'm not going to pay for --

KEILAR: You say he did a bad job.

COX: I -- he -- he --

KEILAR: But he put in the work?

COX: He -- he rendered service to the -- he -- he rendered service to the campaign and then didn't bill until after the campaign was over and billed an excessive amount.

But the point is, Mr. Newsom pays a software company $50 million for a software that didn't even work. He paid Blue Cross/Blue Shield for vaccine management that was horrendous. He paid the people in the employment division untold amounts of money for software and for work, and the employment division has a huge backlog and paid out $30 billion in fraud. I'm not going to apologize for being a businessman who makes sure that the people who render bills and who don't do the work don't get paid. And I'm going to watch every penny of California's money as much as I watch my own.

KEILAR: Did you have a contract with the firm? Did you have a contract with the firm?

COX: Of course. Of -- yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And this is the only vendor that did not get paid.

Listen, I can afford to pay him. I did not want to pay him because he billed excessively and after the fact. And he did that -- he got paid a lot of money by the campaign. Trust me on that one. One bad apple, and you guys make a big deal of it because that's what he wanted. He wanted that to be the case.

Listen, I'm -- I'm a businessman who has been in business for 40 years and been a success. And I wouldn't have done that if I didn't pay people. I pay everybody who renders good service. But I'm going to make sure that the people of California get a fair deal. I'm going to make sure that we cut taxes, that we don't tax people excessively.

I'm going to make sure that every penny in California is disclosed and is online. I'm going to make sure that we spend every penny efficiently and productively, and that's what I think the people of California want in their leadership. They don't want somebody that's just going to rollover for a vendor who didn't do the job right.

KEILAR: All right, look, just days away now. We'll see what they think. John Cox, thank you so much.

COX: Thank you. Great to be with you.

BERMAN: All right, breaking news.

We are now hearing that President Biden will mandate all federal workers be vaccinated, no option for testing out of it. We have the details, next.