Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chestnut fails to follow Willie Gary model, loses control of story

Robert Champion, Sr. and Pam Champion probably thought they’d receive Willie Gary-level quality representation when they retained Christopher Chestnut as their attorney. Chestnut constantly states that he considers Gary to be his mentor.

But Chestnut’s approach to public relations doesn’t reflect the Gary model. A key part of Gary’s success has been his skill at staying on top of the facts in his cases and shaping the direction of media coverage. Chestnut has let the press run away with the public discussion of the Nov. 19 “Crossing Bus C” hazing incident.

Chestnut has had little control over the Robert Champion, Jr. story ever since ESPN investigative reporters began sharing their findings in March. A lawsuit filed by Chestnut stated that Fabulous Coach Lines driver Wendy Millette stood guard outside the bus on which Champion was being hazed. It also claimed that she “forced” him back onto vehicle when he came out the bus door to vomit.

ESPN’s coverage provided an eyewitness account by FAMU drum major Keon Hollis, who said he arrived at the bus with Champion and stayed with him throughout the entire hazing process. Hollis said he didn’t see the bus driver anywhere around the vehicle.

Hollis also said that he and Champion willingly participated in the hazing process.

Chestnut remained quiet, for the most part, in the weeks that followed the ESPN reports even though Hollis’ story stood at odds with key parts of his allegations against Millette. He instead decided to focus on bashing the Orange County Sheriff’s Office’s (OCSO) investigation in May after felony charges were announced against 11 individuals who allegedly took part in the Nov. 19 hazing process. Prosecutors declined to include Millette in their list of Champion case defendants. Chestnut claimed that “there wasn't an aggressive investigation initially” and that the work of law enforcement officials “was botched from Day 1.”

The effort to attack the competence of those who handled the criminal investigation didn’t go anywhere. When news organizations across the country received the Champion case files from the OCSO, they gave sympathetic coverage to the detective work. They also published big headlines about the evidence that Champion volunteered to be hazed.

Chestnut finally had to call a press conference to address the issue he had been avoiding since the Hollis interview aired on ESPN in March. He told reporters that even after the release of the case file evidence, it still wasn’t clear to him that Champion boarded the bus on which he was hazed willingly.

Maybe Chestnut thought he could indirectly discredit Hollis’ statements about Champion’s willing participation and the bus driver’s absence from the vehicle by trying to convince the public that the criminal investigation, which heavily relied on Hollis’ sworn affidavit, was “botched.”  

If Hollis cooperated with detectives and prosecutors to bring criminal charges against his own bandmates, why would he have any reason to protect the bus driver? Why would he have any reason to make a false claim about Champion participating in the hazing ritual on his own free will?

Until Chestnut comes forward with some evidence that can prove Hollis’ account is wrong, he has no chance of regaining control of the Champion story.

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