Nation roundup for June 28


Friend: Trayvon Martin encounter racially charged

SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — George Zimmerman’s defense attorney insisted during several testy exchanges with a important prosecution witness Thursday that Trayvon Martin injected race into a confrontation with the neighborhood watch volunteer and insinuated the young woman was not believable because of inconsistencies in her story.

However, 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel stood firm in her testimony about the night Zimmerman shot the unarmed black 17-year-old after a fight that Jeantel said she overheard while on the phone with Martin. Jeantel has said Martin told her he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker” — implying Martin was being followed by a white man because of his race.

Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic. Race has permeated nationwide discussions of the case since the February 2012 shooting, which prompted nationwide protests and claims from critics that police took too long to arrest Zimmerman.

The neighborhood watch volunteer has pleaded not guilty and says he acted in self-defense.

Defense attorney Don West also zeroed in on slight differences among three different accounts of what happened before Martin’s killing, in an apparent effort to discredit her. Jeantel has described what she heard over the phone in a deposition; a letter to Martin’s mother; and an interview with the Martin family attorney. Among the differences highlighted by West:

— In some accounts, she said race was an issue but not in others.

— Jeantel testified Wednesday that her friend’s last words were “Get off! Get off!” before Martin’s phone went silent. But on Thursday, under cross-examination, she conceded that she hadn’t mentioned that in her account of what happened to Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. She had left out some details to spare Fulton’s feelings, and also because neither Fulton nor the Martin family attorney asked her directly about them, Jeantel said.

— After Martin asks why he is being followed, Zimmerman responds, “What are you doing around here?” in one account by Jeantel. In another account, according to West, she says Zimmerman said, “What are you talking about?”

Zimmerman, 29, could get life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder. Zimmerman followed Martin in his truck and called a police dispatch number before he and the teen got into a fight.

Zimmerman has said he opened fire only after the teenager jumped him and began slamming his head against the concrete sidewalk. Zimmerman has denied the confrontation had anything to do with race, as Martin’s family and their supporters have claimed.

Jeantel testified Thursday that she thought race was an issue because Martin told her he was being followed by a white man.

But West responded, “It was racial because Trayvon put race in this?”

She answered no.

The exchanges got testier as the day progressed.

When asked by West if she had previously told investigators that she heard what sounded like somebody being hit at the end of her call with Martin, Jeantel said, “Trayvon got hit.”

“You don’t know that? Do you? You don’t know that Trayvon got hit,” West answered angrily. “You don’t know that Trayvon didn’t at that moment take his fists and drive them into George Zimmerman’s face.”

Later in the morning, West accused Jeantel of not calling police after Martin’s phone went dead because she thought it was a fight he had provoked.

“That’s why you weren’t worried. That’s why you didn’t do anything because Trayvon Martin started the fight, and you knew that,” West said.

“No sir!” Jeantel said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

At one point, West handed her a letter she had written with the help of a friend to Martin’s mother explaining what happened. She looked at it but then said she couldn’t read cursive handwriting. Jeantel later explained she is of Haitian descent and grew up speaking Creole and Spanish.

Thursday’s testimony began with a more subdued tone that it did a day earlier, when Jeantel frequently bristled at West’s questions and she at one point told him to move on to the next question: “You can go. You can go.”

West took note of her calmer demeanor in the morning. She answered many of West’s early questions by repeating “yes, sir,” almost in a whisper.

“You feeling OK today? You seem different than yesterday,” West said.

“I got some sleep,” she answered.

After Jeantel left the witness stand, a mobile phone manager testified about Martin’s cell phone records and a former neighbor of Zimmerman testified she heard yelps for help outside her townhome on the night Martin was shot. Jenna Lauer said she couldn’t tell who was screaming.

“They were being hurt,” Lauer said, describing the person screaming.

Before court recessed for the day, defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked another former neighbor to recreate for jurors how she reacted when she heard what turned out to be a gunshot and ran out of her town-house to see what was going on. The request had Selma Mora in the unusual position of standing up from the witness stand and pretending to be in her kitchen in front of the judge’s bench.

Gandolfini: A big man and everyman is eulogized

NEW YORK (AP) — The funeral of James Gandolfini took place in one of the largest churches in the world and didn’t stint on ceremony.

Still, the estimated 1,500 mourners who gathered Thursday in New York’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine seemed part of an intimate affair. They came to pay their respects to a plain but complex man whose sudden death eight days before had left all of them feeling a loss.

During the service, Gandolfini was remembered by the creator of “The Sopranos” as an actor who had brought a key element to mob boss Tony Soprano: Tony’s inner child-like quality.

For a man who, in so many ways, was an unrepentant brute, that underlying purity was what gave viewers permission to love him.

“You brought ALL of that to it,” said David Chase in remarks he delivered as if an open letter to his fallen friend and “Sopranos” star.

Even though Gandolfini was indisputably a formidable man both on and off the screen, Chase also saw him as a boy — “sad, amazed, confused and loving,” he summed up, addressing his subject: “You could see it in your eyes. And that’s why you are a great actor.”

Susan Aston, who for decades was Gandolfini’s dialogue coach and collaborator, spoke of how he wrestled to find truth in his performances.

“He worked hard,” she said. “He was disciplined. He studied his roles and did his homework.” But then, when the cameras rolled, his performance took over and, “through an act of faith, he allowed himself to go to an uncharted place. … He remained vulnerable, and kept his heart open in his life and in his work.”

The 51-year-old actor died of a heart attack last week while vacationing with his 13-year-old son in Italy. It was cruel end to a holiday meant to be part of a summer that Gandolfini was devoting to his family — including his son and his 9-month-old daughter — by even turning down a movie role, according to Aston, citing what she said was her final conversation with him.

Aston said he told her “I don’t want to lose any of the time I have with Michael and Lily this summer.”

The actor’s widow, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, also spoke at the ceremony, as did longtime friend Thomas Richardson, who affectionately described Gandolfini as a man “who hugged too tight and held too long.” But now facing a world without hugs from Gandolfini, Richardson invited the congregation to stand and share hugs with their neighbors.

“It is in hugging that we are hugged,” he declared.

A private family wake was held for the actor Wednesday in New Jersey.

Broadway theaters paid tribute by dimming their lights briefly Wednesday night. Gandolfini was nominated for a Tony Award in 2009 as an actor in “God of Carnage.”

For Thursday’s service, celebrities and fellow actors helped make up the capacity audience.

Those from “The Sopranos” included Edie Falco, Joe Pantoliano, Dominic Chianese, Steve Schirripa, Aida Turturro, Vincent Curatola, Tony Sirico, Lorraine Bracco, Steve Buscemi and Michael Imperioli.

Others from the entertainment community included Julianna Margulies, Alec Baldwin, Chris Noth, Marcia Gay Harden, Dick Cavett and Steve Carell.

NBC News’ Brian Williams was in attendance. So was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

So was Saul Stein, 60, a resident of Harlem.

“I came to pay my respects today because he’s a character I identify with, a family man,” Stein said as he waited in line outside the church.

New Jersey accents were easy to hear among those hoping for a chance to get in. A few people spoke in Italian.

Of course, both New Jersey and Italian-Americans played a big part of “The Sopranos,” which originally ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007.

Chase recalled a hot Jersey day early in the show’s production that bonded him with Gandolfini — with whom he shared Italian-American working-class roots — for all times.

Waiting to shoot the next scene, Gandolfini was seated in an aluminum lawn chair with his slacks rolled up, black socks and black shoes exposed, and a damp cloth on his head in an effort to find some relief from the heat.

“I hadn’t seen that done since my father used to do it, and my Italian uncle, and my grandfather,” said Chase. “They were laborers in the hot sun of New Jersey.”

“I was filled with love,” Chase said, struggling to keep his composure, as he described the sight of Gandolfini in the broiling sun.

“I always felt we are brothers,” he said, “based on that day.”

Senators: Student loan interest rates to double

WASHINGTON (AP) — Student loan rates will double Monday — at least for a while — after a compromise to keep student loan interest rates low proved unwinnable before the July 1 deadline, senators said Thursday.

Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate education panel, said none of the proposals being circulating among lawmakers could win passage, and he urged lawmakers to extend the current rates for another year when they return from the July 4 recess. Harkin said his colleagues could retroactively restore the current rates after the holiday.

“Let’s put this off for a year,” Harkin, D-Iowa, told reporters.

Interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are set to go from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on Monday unless lawmakers take action. Congress’ Joint Economic Committee estimates the increase will cost the average student $2,600.

“Neither party wants to see rates rise next week,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

But a one-year rate extension isn’t an acceptable option, either, he said.

“Last year we kicked the can down the road and passed a one-year extension for only a small group of students. … Why would we make the same mistake again and just kick the can down the road another year?” said Burr, who was among a group of senators who worked on a competing proposal with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The Manchin-led proposal would link interest rates to the financial markets. It borrowed heavily from a version House Republicans passed earlier and from principles included in President Barack Obama’s budget proposal.

Critics called it a bait-and-switch move that would provide students lower interest rates at first before they climb upward as the economy improves.

”Students across this country would rather have no deal than a bad deal,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. “We’re at the point where we have to do our best to extend the 3.4 percent interest rate while we work on a good deal, not just any deal.”

Republicans blamed Democrats and said they would be responsible for the expected rate hike.

“As a result of their obstruction, the Democrat-led Senate will leave town and allow interest rates on some new student loans to increase on Monday,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. “Senate Democrats continue to block reform and insist on kicking the can down the road.”

Republicans also noted the Manchin-led proposal had many similarities with Obama’s, including a link between 10-year Treasury notes and student rates.

“This agreement is very much like the proposal in the president’s budget, it is very much like the proposal passed by the Republican House of Representatives and it will save billions of dollars in interest for all 11 million students taking out loans this year by dropping rates on all student loans,” said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Alexander, a former education secretary, called Harkin’s proposal “a short-term, political fix.”

“That’s no fix at all when we have a plan to help all students that we can pass quickly,” he added.

Nothing was happening — quickly or not — before July 1, meaning students who take loans would face higher rates. Senators were heading out of town without a deal, and Harkin said his colleagues would consider a retroactive fix on July 10.

“I think we are nowhere between now and July 1,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “It sounds to me like the Senate is going to leave town without dealing with this.”

But Democrats promised to turn back to them when they get back to Washington, first with a short-term fix and then a longer-range measure.

The law that governs college and universities expires this fall and lawmakers planned to rewrite it starting in September. Democrats said they prefer to include a comprehensive student loan measure in it, rather than as a stand-alone bill.

“We need a one-year patch to keep interest rates from doubling on student loans,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “That buys us the time.”

Target cuts ties with Deen; drugmaker distances

NEW YORK (AP) — Paula Deen’s multimillion-dollar merchandise and media empire continues to unravel following revelations that she used racial slurs in the past.

Target Corp., Home Depot Inc. and diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk on Thursday became the latest companies to distance themselves from the Southern celebrity chef.

Home Depot, which sold Paula Deen-branded cookware and kitchen products only online, said it pulled the merchandise off its website on Wednesday. And Target said that it will phase out its Paula Deen-branded cookware and other items in stores and on its website.

“Once the merchandise is sold out, we will not be replenishing inventory,” said Molly Snyder, a Target spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, Novo Nordisk said it and Deen have “mutually agreed to suspend our patient education activities for now.” Deen, who specializes in Southern comfort food, had been promoting the company’s drug Victoza since last year when she announced she had Type 2 diabetes.

These are the latest blows dealt to Deen since comments she made in a court deposition became public. Last week, the Food Network said that it would not renew her contract. On Monday, pork producer Smithfield Foods dropped her as a spokeswoman. Then, on Wednesday, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s biggest retailer, said it too was cutting ties with Deen following a tearful “Today” show interview in which she said she’s not a racist.

On the same day, Caesars Entertainment announced that Paula Deen’s name is being stripped from four buffet restaurants owned by the company. Caesars said that its decision to rebrand its restaurants in Joliet, Ill.; Tunica, Miss.; Cherokee, N.C.; and Elizabeth, Ind., was a mutual one with Deen.

The stakes are high for Deen, who Forbes magazine ranked as the fourth highest-earning celebrity chef last year, bringing in $17 million. She’s behind Gordon Ramsay, Rachel Ray and Wolfgang Puck, according to Forbes.

Deen’s empire, which spans from TV shows to furniture and cookware, generates total annual revenue of nearly $100 million, estimates Burt Flickinger III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group.

But Flickinger says that the controversy has cost her as much as half of that business. He also estimates that she could lose up to 80 percent by next year as suppliers extricate themselves from their agreements.

“The accelerating domino effect is commercially disastrous for Paula Deen’s empire,” he said.

It’s a dramatic fall from a woman who overcame her humble Southern roots and personal hardships to build a merchandising and media empire.

Deen, who grew up in Albany, Ga., was grappling with a failed marriage, the death of her parents and a prolonged battle with agoraphobia when she started her home-based catering business called The Bag Lady in June 1989, according to her company website.

Then a mother of two teenage boys, Jamie and Bobby, and on the verge of homelessness, she used her last $200 to start the catering business. She describes the business as delivering “lunch-and-love-in-a-bag.” Five years later, she opened her first restaurant called The Lady and Sons in Savannah, Ga. Her first cookbook, “The Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cookbook,” came out in 1998.

Soon after, she had her first TV appearance on QVC. But it was when “Paula’s Home Cooking,” began airing on the Food Network in 2002 that she started to hit stardom, according to her site. Deen now has two shows airing on the Food Network: In addition to “Paula’s Home Cooking,” there’s “Paula’s Best Dishes,” which made its debut in 2008.

Deen’s empire has continued to grow over the years as her brand has blossomed.

In addition to her The Lady and Sons restaurant, Deen owns with her brother, Bubba, a seafood restaurant in Savannah called Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House. Deen is the author of 14 cookbooks that have sold more than 8 million copies and her bimonthly magazine “Cooking with Paula Deen” has a circulation of nearly 1 million, according to her website. And Deen’s product lines span from a full line of cookware to assorted food items to furniture.

Not every company Deen does business with has severed ties with the celebrity chef. Among other stores that sell her products, Kohl’s Corp. declined to comment, while Macy’s Inc. and Sears Holdings Corp. said they’re evaluating the situation. QVC, meanwhile, said it’s reviewing its deal with Deen.

And book-buyers are so far standing by Deen. As of Thursday afternoon, “Paula Deen’s New Testament: 250 Recipes, All Lightened Up,” remained No. 1 on Amazon.com. The book is scheduled for October. Another Deen book, “Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible,” is now at No. 5, up from No. 13 earlier in the day. Several other Deen books were out of stock.

 

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