Maintaining Ethics Under the Media Spotlight

Jim Champion Maintains Professional and Ethical Standards During a High-Profile Murder Trial

Article Reprinted from Benchmark Magazine | July 2014

Many media stories today place an emphasis on crime and violence, so it's not surprising to see a Cooley graduate as a lead in a high-profile murder case. Most murder cases that garner the media's attention are those involving family members, such as the cases of O.J. Simpson, Jody Arias, and Casey Anthony, to name a few. In a trial that concluded in January 2013, Jim Champion (Cushman Class, 2000) found himself at the center of such a case and witnessed firsthand the repercussions of intense media exposure as well as the professional and ethical situations that attorneys face in dealing with the media.

When Champion, a solo practitioner in Grand Rapids, Mich., decided to meet with family members of murder suspect Jeffrey Pyne, he never imagined that the case of a son who allegedly killed his mother in a Detroit suburb would generate the amount of national attention it did. The case received attention from all major networks and was covered from beginning to end by CNN's "In Session" program.

THE CASE

Champion grew up in Highland Township, Mich., about 40 miles northeast of Detroit, in a community where everyone seems to know one another. Shortly after hearing about the situation in his hometown involving the Pyne family, he was asked to meet with Bernard Pyne, Jeffrey's father. Champion felt a sense of urgency and drove nearly three hours from his current home in Grand Rapids to meet with Bernard and eventually with Jeffrey, the alleged murderer. After the initial meetings, Bernard and Jeffrey asked Champion to take on the case.

The decision to take the case would have been simple for an attorney working in a firm with support staff and other attorneys with murder case experience. But for a solo practitioner, the decision was much more difficult knowing that handling a trial of this magnitude would not leave much time for other cases. Champion made the tough decision to defend Jeffrey.

After taking the case, Champion didn't expect what came next: the flood of phone calls from the media. When the calls began coming in, Champion remembers going back to the Cooley training he received in professionalism and responsibility.

"There are certain things you can't do. You can't guarantee a win. You can't ignore the client. You can't lie. As an attorney, my obligations and loyalty are with the client - not the media," noted Champion. "I made an ethical decision to spend my time working for the client and not putting myself in front of the cameras. I would answer their (the reporters) calls and be hospitable, but I wouldn't talk about the case."

When a local reporter told Champion he was going to print a story with or without comment from him, Champion decided to stick to his convictions and not grant the interview, even though the article could contain factual errors.

Eventually, stories were published saying "evidence against Jeffrey was mounting." These stories also included information about cell phone records allegedly detailing his client's location during the time of the murder.

At the time, Champion wondered, "Was the prosecutor leaking information to shape public opinion? Was it an intrepid reporter that dug up records I didn't have yet? Were these things being said by investigators to take me on a wild goose chase and distract me from my defense strategy?"

Knowing the media coverage could shape the public's and jurors' opinions when the case went to trial, Champion had to look into the claims regarding cell phone records that allegedly pointed toward Jeffrey's guilt. After Champion spent thousands of dollars on experts and filing motions to obtain the cell phone records referenced by reporters, he then compared these records with the thousands of pages of phone records that the prosecution eventually handed over. In the end, there was nothing indicating Jeffrey's location at, or near, the time of his mother's murder.

"At this point, I didn't know what to think. I felt like the media influenced me as I went chasing after evidence that ultimately wasn't there, but I did put the best interest of my client first and ensured that the cell phone records did not strengthen the prosecution's case."

As the trial date drew nearer, Champion answered every call from the media and remained hospitable, but stayed true to his original strategy for dealing with the media.

"I would not comment about anything regarding the trial, but I knew I had to take the calls," noted Champion. "I did not want to turn any member of the media against my client or compromise the case in any way."

THE TRIAL BEGINS

The courtroom was packed on opening day of jury selection. The entire trial was recorded by CNN's In Session, and its cameras served as the pool feed for the media. Every local television station was there and all local newspapers had representatives in the media room.

"Within an hour of opening statements, national TV outlets began calling. Everyone wanted an exclusive or the inside track. I had reporters following me into the courthouse, asking me to give them a 'scoop.' The trial went on for six weeks and so did the reporters' questions. I had to start using other entrances to the courthouse," recalled Champion.

Champion stuck to his earlier convictions and did not talk to the media about the case, even as the media found new ways to search for details.

"How could I, in good conscience, in the middle of a murder trial, be worried about the media when I had a person's life in my hands? I couldn't let it distract me," said Champion. "Reporters were asking me for exclusive interviews and one was even waiting for me in the bushes outside the courthouse. On top of those day-to-day distractions, I also had to concern myself with the fact that my silence was being interpreted incorrectly by some media outlets, but I had a responsibility to my client that superseded those concerns."

Two weeks into the trial, People Magazine ran a two-page spread on the trial. Soon after, ABC's Good Morning America legal analyst Dan Abrams, as well as CNN anchor Nancy Grace, began reporting on the case daily.

"In my mind, playing the role of celebrity lawyer for the media was not in the best interest of my client. I had to prepare for the trial and be ready for what was happening in the courtroom," said Champion.

THE VERDICT

After six weeks of testimony, Champion felt he had built a solid case for his client's defense. He even thought he had won the case. Moments before the jury was given their instructions, the prosecution asked the judge to give instructions for second-degree murder, in addition to the first-degree murder charges.

"This was an indication to me that the prosecution felt they didn't have a case," said Champion. "I was confident Jeffrey was going to walk."

The jury came back with a guilty verdict on the second-degree charge. Champion admits to being upset by the verdict. "I gave Jeff a hug and said, 'Sorry, I failed you.'"

AFTER THE VERDICT

Champion was given the opportunity to speak with the jurors following the verdict. He asked: if second-degree murder had not been an option, what would the verdict have been? The answer: not guilty.

He also wonders if the media attention helped shape the jury's opinion. "I am not at all sure what role the media coverage played. There was an endless amount of information online, on television, and on the radio. Members of the jury had plenty of opportunities to see coverage of the trial."

For example, explained Champion, "One of the jurors said to the other jurors, 'I got my People Magazine and this story is in it,' so it's clearly possible that media coverage shaped the jury's verdict."

"A trial with national media is much more difficult than I imagined. I can't help but wonder if I should have spoken to the media before and during the trial," said Champion. "But in the end, the ethics and professionalism I received at Cooley led me to the proper course of action. I put all my efforts into trying the case responsibly and ethically."

Now that the case is over, Champion has spoken to several national media outlets. In addition to CNN's In Session, the case has been featured on CBS' 48 Hours, NBC's Dateline, and Discovery Channel's Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall.

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COOLEY PROFESSOR VICTORIA VULETICH WEIGHS IN ON A LAWYER'S HANDLING OF THE MEDIA DURING A MURDER TRIAL

One of the great things about Cooley's mission is its emphasis on ethics and professionalism. Cooley is among a small group of law schools that truly "walk the walk and talk the talk" when it comes to ethics and professionalism and is one of the reasons I left a great job to teach at Cooley. When I heard about Jim Champion and how he handled this case, it makes me proud of graduates like him and Cooley's program.

All ethics issues involve a balance of competing interests. The ethical rules that govern attorneys are very general and do not give specific answers to attorneys trying to balance these important interests. Jim had the challenging task of both protecting his client from adverse publicity that could negatively impact his trial and trying to position his client favorably in the media to prevent potential jurors from making conclusions about his client on anything other than the evidence - a difficult balance to achieve.

Some attorneys get into trouble when handling high profile media cases because their egos get in the way. For many attorneys, a case like this is the biggest case of their careers. The television lights and media attention can be intoxicating and are sometimes viewed as a way of "marketing" the attorney's practice. Jim successfully controlled his ego and personal goals and put his client's case first.

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