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Britney Spears in Court Today over Dad's Role in Conservatorship; Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) & Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) Discuss Bill to Overhaul Military Justice System Regarding Sexual Assaults, Pressure Mounting on Biden, Democrats as GOP Blocks Voting Bill; COVID "Long Haulers" Struggle with Symptoms Long After Infection. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired June 23, 2021 - 14:30   ET



NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And to your point as well, Britney has actually done a lot in those 13 years that she's been under this conservatorship.

She's released four albums. Two of them have gone platinum. She did a four-year Vegas residency that made $138 million. She also was a judge on "American Idol." She was a judge on "X Factor."

So when people look at that from the outside, in, they say, is this someone who needs to be under a conservatorship if you can walk through life like this and do all of these things?

Why do you need to be controlled like this? Britney is one of those people.

So seemingly, we'll hear from her this afternoon, speak out, like you said, for first time and try to get that conservatorship back from her father.

We've seen her mother also join this fight with her. Her boyfriend just had a "Free Britney" shirt on, on social media, yesterday.

So there's really a groundswell growing to try to get Britney, basically, her life back to her.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Let's talk about that groundswell because a lot of what we're learning was first highlighted by fans --


BLACKWELL: -- many of whom were dismissed as obsessed with this pop star.

But through the podcast of Tess Barker, Barbara Gray, the starting of this #freeBritney, it's really shone a light on her plight.

TURNER: It has. And it has actually forced a lot of us to look back at that time. Victor, I was a local news reporter in Los Angeles back in that 2007-

2008 time. I remember being outside of her neighborhood every single morning. It really was a lot on her, especially when she was going through a really tough time.

So while we kind of looked at it as, oh, we're doing our jobs, I think her fans really saw through a lot of that and saw this is something that everybody needs to take a step back from.

Now, when we look back and see how she was treated and see how some of that could have contributed, like putting that over the edge, we all have to re-evaluate what was going on then.

And I think the fans saw that a lot. And, yes, we did dismiss them as the obsessed Britney fans. But it was more of, we see what this is doing to her and we want to take her back. We just want Britney to be OK.

I think a lot of people now are saying, yes, maybe they were right at the time.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: You're so right. I think a lot of people in the media also dismissed her --


CAMEROTA: -- as a commodity, a girl. You know, not to be taken seriously. But this is a serious situation.

I'll just read a portion of the court report that has now been released.

It says, "Britney articulated she feels the conservatorship has become an oppressive and controlling tool used against her. She is sick of being taken advantage of. And she said she is the one working and earning her money but everyone around her is on her payroll."

When you just say -- Victor and I, our eyebrows went up for the $138 million for just the Vegas residency. Does that money still exist? Can she get that money back?

TURNER: Well, let's hope it does still exist. I know that her father in the conservatorship does get 1.5 percent of that money that she made in the Vegas residency.

Her fortune is reportedly worth about $60 million right now. So when you think about all the money made from the Vegas residency, you think about having to pay dancers, paying venues, doing all of those things, paying overhead.

But she does still have a really big fortune that she has amassed and she still wants to work.

So a lot of people think, if you have the fortitude, the mental fortitude to go through all that, to do a four-year Vegas residency, that you are on stage every single night performing for hours, then you can take care of your own life and your own money.

We're going to hear her, albeit, remotely, we believe, this afternoon speak to the court. But it will be fascinating to hear her for the first time in 13 years to talk about what she wants.

BLACKWELL: Thirteen years. A remarkable case here.

Nischelle Turner, thanks so much.

TURNER: So good to see you guys. Thanks.

CAMEROTA: You, too.

BLACKWELL: Likewise.

So Vanessa Guillen was just 20 years old when she was murdered by a fellow soldier. Her family says she complained of sexual harassment by her killer but those complaints were not investigated.


Now a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to overhaul the military justice system, starting with how sexual assaults are handled. The changes that they are seeking, next.


CAMEROTA: Today, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced a bill that proposes sweeping changes to the military justice system.

The act would transfer the prosecution of sexual assaults from military commanders and put them in the hands of independent military prosecutors.

Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier, one of the sponsors of the bill, made clear why now is the time.


REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA): We're here today for the servicemembers who have spoken out or who have suffered in silence because the message and culture in the military has been clear: Shut up, suck it up, and don't rock the boat.


CAMEROTA: California Congresswoman Jackie Speier joins us now. Along with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has championed a similar bipartisan bill in the Senate.

Ladies, great to see you.

SPEIER: Great to be with you, Alisyn.


CAMEROTA: Congresswoman, why can't military commanders prosecute sexual assault crimes in the military?

SPEIER: Well, they could if the commanding authority, the convening authority, chooses to move in that direction. But they are not trained as lawyers. They are trained as military leaders.

And so just like we wouldn't put a lawyer in charge of a military brigade, we think it's time to take these cases out of the chain of command because there's just a conflict of interest.

Oftentimes, the actual perpetrator is in the chain of command or a good friend of the chain of command. And so many of these cases end up not being prosecuted. In fact, very few get prosecuted.


And very few of the victims come forward because they fear retaliation and they believe the system is rigged.

CAMEROTA: Senator, I feel like we've been talking about this for years now. The prevalence -- I know you have -- the prevalence of sexual assault in the military.

Has anything changed? Is it getting better? Is it still just as prevalent?

GILLIBRAND: It's just as prevalent, if not more. And the record of the command structure is declining.

In fact, there was approximately 20,000 cases of sexual assault and rape last estimated by the DOD.

And the number of cases that are actually going to trial and the percentage of cases going to trial and the percentage of cases ending in conviction are both going down.

So under any measurable, we're going in the wrong direction.

And so this reform is to professionalize the system, to give the judgment call to a trained military prosecutor, and to make the system fair and less biased.

Because we know, in this instance of military sexual assault, there's a bias against the survivor because enough cases aren't going forward and not ending in conviction.

CAMEROTA: Congressman, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin supports this move, it sounds like.

But General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has some questions and issues.

Here was his statement back in May:

"Removing commanders from prosecution decisions may have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, justice, unit cohesion, trust, and loyalty between commanders and those they lead."

What's your response?

SPEIER: Well, actually, there's been a huge change of heart within the military.

Both Secretary Austin and General Milley were in the Armed Services Committee this morning. Both talked about how important it is now to take these cases out of the chain of command.

We've spent over a billion dollars over the last 10 years. As Senator Gillibrand just said, nothing has changed.

So they're recognizing that now. So we're moving in the right direction.

Now, we're asking that it go beyond just sexual assault and sexual harassment cases and also include all non-military felonies. That's where they're not as supportive at this time.

But it's the Congress that created the Uniform Code of military justice. We have the right and the responsibility to take action where justice needs to be done.

CAMEROTA: Senator, while I have you, I want to ask you about the For the People Act, the Voting Rights Act that 50 Republican Senators didn't even want to debate this week.

I know that Democrats are now putting a lot of stock in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that will maybe be voted on in the fall.

But I wonder, as you watch all of these states, primarily Republican- led legislatures, who are passing restrictive voting rights, at last count, at least 14, but many more in process, do you worry about what will happen to democracy by then?

GILLIBRAND: I do. And our democracy and voting rights are under attack in state after state with red governors and legislatures who are determined to make it harder, not easier, to vote.

It's one of the reasons why I support filibuster reform because we have Democrats who are willing to protect our constitutional right to vote.

And, unfortunately, Mitch McConnell and those who follow him are blocking that.

So I think this is the kind of issue that's ultimately going to require filibuster reform so that we can pass protections with 51 votes.

CAMEROTA: Senator, what do you say to your colleague who don't support filibuster reform?

GILLIBRAND: I think time will show that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans are not acting in good faith. I think time will show that they are dragging these negotiations out

right now over infrastructure. And it will not reach a resolution.

And so I'm hopeful that we can have a robust response to COVID to make sure resources go to the states and cities and hospitals and schools and small businesses across our country.

And so that those resources can go through a reconciliation package supported by Democrats.

But there's no reason why we can't allow for the space for bipartisanship to take place. But if they can't reach agreement, we should move forward because we have to help the country.

And on the issue of bipartisanship, the thing that Jackie and I are here to talk about, we had wide bipartisanship this morning.

Some of the most conservative members from the House Armed Services Committee joined us, who are military veterans.

We also, on the Senate, have 66 co-sponsors on a bipartisan basis.

How many bills in America today have Ted Cruz on one side and Liz Warren on the other, Mitch McConnell voting yes and Chuck Schumer voting yes? There's basically none.

And so this bill deserves a vote on the U.S. House floor and on the U.S. Senate floor.

Unfortunately, we are being opposed by Jack Reed and others who want to keep the retention of this issue in the Armed Services Committee.


While, unfortunately, the chairman and ranking members have the sole authority after something has passed through the committee in both the House and Senate to take it out in conference.

So the hope of keeping this legislation together with the bright lone of all felonies so that a murder is treated the same as a rape.

Which is important because, in the case of Vanessa Guillen, she was murdered. She might not have had the benefit of this independent review.

And we believe that that bright line protects both plaintiffs' rights and defendants' rights and makes our military justice system better.

CAMEROTA: So will you get a vote?

GILLIBRAND: Well, that --


GILLIBRAND: That remains to be seen. SPEIER: We'll absolutely get a vote in the House. Speaker Pelosi

joined us at the press conference. And she made a commitment to the Guillen family last year that this bill will be heard on the House floor.

So we want to make sure it happens sooner than later.

GILLIBRAND: And I've been asking unanimous consent every day for the past -- I don't know -- maybe more than a dozen times, asking to have that floor vote.

Jack Reed has objected every time because he wants to keep this reform narrow. He wants to keep it sexual assault only.

And that would be a grave disservice to our servicemembers, not only who he marginalized if it was just one crime.

But for the benefit of defendants' rights, it's necessary that you have a system that's fair for everyone.

CAMEROTA: Well, we really appreciate you bringing it to our attention.

Congressman Jackie Speier, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, nice to talk to you. Thank you for being here.

SPEIER: Thank you, Alisyn.


CAMEROTA: OK, most people who get the COVID-19 -- who get COVID-19 make a full recovery. But some long haulers have serious symptoms that persist long after their diagnosis.

Screen writer, Heidi Ferrer, died by suicide after battling the illness for more than a year. Her husband will join us to tell us about their ordeal, next.



CAMEROTA: Most COVID patients fully recover, but not all. Experts believe at least 10 percent of patients become COVID long-haulers who suffer severe illnesses indefinitely after diagnosis.

Heidi Ferrer, a well-known Hollywood screenwriter, was one of them. After fighting the virus for more than a year and experiencing endless setbacks, she died by suicide at the end of May.

Her husband, Nick, joins us now.

Nick, we're so sorry for your loss. I really appreciate you being here to share Heidi's story with us.

And I know that's what she wanted. I mean, the reason you're doing this interview is to get her story out. So, just tell us what her year was like and what her symptoms were

like in her daily life.

NICK GUTHE, WIFE DIED BY SUICIDE AFTER BATTLE WITH LONG-HAUL COVID-19: Well, it started with excruciating, unexplained pain in her feet that turned out to be the equivalent of diabetic nerve pain, which she wasn't a diabetic, which made her bed-ridden by last June.

That followed incredibly difficult digestive issues for months, overall body aches, racing heart rate. When she would just get out of bed to walk, her heart would go from 80 to 130 beats in 15 seconds.

And then neurological tremors that started in the last month that were very scary. And also completely disrupted her sleep. She had like an internal vibration in her body that she could feel but nobody else could see. But it kept her from sleeping.

So for the last month, she barely slept more than an hour at a time.

CAMEROTA: It sounds horrible. It sounds like a living hell, obviously.

And this went on for more than a year?

GUTHE: Thirteen -- it started 13 months ago, yes.

CAMEROTA: Were doctors ever able to determine of give you any explanation for why she had such a debilitating case?

GUTHE: No. I mean, you know, in the beginning, the tests were so inaccurate, the early tests with tests were so inaccurate that nobody would even say she had it.

You know, they came up with a bunch of other reasons and none of them seemed accurate.

She did get some more advanced tests later on that actually led her to be referred to the long-haul COVID clinic at Cedar-Sinai.

And the letter for referral, ironically, arrived the day before she took her own life.

That's how hard it is to get people to pay attention with people with long-haul COVID if they didn't get a positive test in the first, you know, eight weeks.

CAMEROTA: This disease, this illness is so cruel. It's so unpredictable. I know that Heidi talked about that in her blog.

And there were times during the past year, even this year, that she believed she had turned a corner.

So one of her blog posts, January 25th, she said, "I have positive news. I'm cautiously optimistic that I'm still improving slowly but surely every month. I've had over 40 scary and even crippling long COVID symptoms in July. Now, I'm down to a few frustrating ones. But so much better." And then what happened?

GUTHE: She was improving. She decided to get the Moderna vaccine March 8th, which a lot of long-haulers felt it could improve her symptoMs. In her case, it had just the opposite effect.

And I want to make clear, I'm 100 percent pro-vaccine. I'm vaccinated. My son is vaccinated.

But in her case, it set her back to where she was last July, and also led to the neurological tremors that were very scary, almost like Parkinsonian tremors that kept her up late at night and made sleeping impossible.

And then there was that last month. She had a brain fog that really came on very hard at the end and made even reading a book almost impossible to retain information.


She loved to read. Had 500 books on her Kindle. I think that almost was the final straw for her when she couldn't even enjoy a book.

CAMEROTA: Yes. I think that you've talked about that. When it deprives you of every single, not only life pleasure, but life activity, between eating, sleeping, reading, functioning, it gets to be too much.

Did she talk to you about what her plan was when things were at the darkest?

GUTHE: No. I mean, she had indicated that if things got really bad, she didn't know how she could continue. She didn't know how she could keep going.

And I just kept saying, you know, just hang on. You know, hang on. Medical science is moving at the quickest rate it ever has. We got a vaccine in a year.

But I think she just felt, you know, that she was only going to diminish. She was going to lose the ability to walk, end up in a wheelchair, not be able to bathe herself.

And based on the video she left for us, she indicated she wanted to go out while she still had some, I don't know, dignity, I guess. That's the best way I can explain it.

I did ask her to hang on.

CAMEROTA: Nick, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry --

GUTHE: It's OK. It's OK.

CAMEROTA: -- that this horrible illness robbed you of her. And robbed all of her friends and the community that she was in.

So she wanted you to get her story out. What is her message to our viewers?

GUTHE: The message to people with long haul is, hang on. I believe that help is on the way.

But we need our government to step in now and fund research right away. And provide mental health support services for people like her.

I'm in contact with one of her friends on one of her support groups, who told me the other day, literally, that 15 people messaged her, separately, within 24 hours, to say they were thinking about taking the same route Heidi took.

And that's another person suffering with COVID who has to act as a de facto suicide counselor. She said to me, I'm not trained to do this. And, you know, she's battling it herself.

Washington, the government needs to step in now. If three million people out there have long-haul COVID, as you said, one out of 10 people, there's a tsunami coming.

And my wife was one of the first, unfortunately. And there probably will be more. But we need to pay attention.

And it's not just about suicide. It's about people re-entering the workforce. This is an economic issue. We have trained people, nurses, firemen, first responders, essential workers who will not be able to go back to their jobs because they're exhausted. They're bed-ridden.

As my wife said to me many times, I don't what I would do if I was a single mother. I don't know how I -- I don't know that I could function.

I, as the husband, I had to pick up all of the slack of cooking, cleaning, shopping. And I was happy to do it. I said to her every day, you on the couch is enough for us. You on the couch. Just hang on.

I wish that the medical community would have taken long-haul COVID more seriously early on, and maybe the therapeutics would have been here, and maybe she would still be here.


Nick, we hear your call. It's totally reasonable to ask for those things.

And as you point out, there are all of these symptoms that we can't see in terms of mental health that we all need to be attuned to.

Nick Guthe, we're really sorry for your loss.

Thanks so much for sharing Heidi's story. I think it will help people.

GUTHE: Thanks for having me.

CAMEROTA: If you or someone you know may be at the risk of suicide, please call the National Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They are there to talk to you now.

We'll be right back.