Mark Lunsford vs Bubba: A Case Fueled by Bad Public Relations?
With over 150 comments on my blog post and dozens of comments attached to the newspaper article online, it's obvious readers in the Tampa Bay area are seriously conflicted about the actions of a guy who has turned the rape and murder of his 9-year-old daughter into a national crusade.
I don't know whether there's any substance to Clem's charges against Lunsford; other reporters who have been covering the case are looking into the latest clash more deeply. But I wonder if some of the negative public reaction to Lunsford couldn't be traced to a simple tactical error.
When Lunsford and his attorneys issued their letter announcing their intent to sue the Citrus County sheriff over the office's handling of the disappearance of Lunsford's daughter Jessica, they sent notification to law enforcement, but didn't tell any journalists. This gave the sheriff time to organize his own press conference and talk about the lawsuit from his perspective first, sparking an immediate citizen backlash.
Lunsford said on Clem's show he plans to donate proceeds from the lawsuit -- capped at $100,000 -- to charity, minus legal fees. So why didn't he announce that at the time he sent the letter to the sheriff, making sure his voice was the first one heard publicly on the pending lawsuit, while muting any criticism that he might be trying to make money off his daughter's death?
Much as people fear Lunsford may be seeking fame from his daughter's death, there are other celebrities who have earned millions from personal tragedy. America's Most Wanted host John Walsh went on a crusade to change the laws regarding missing children when his son Adam was abducted and killed in 1981. He has since formed a foundation, had laws passed, had a TV movie made about his life, hosted two TV shows and written three books.
CNN Headline News crime show host Nancy Grace also has a story. In 1979, her fiancee was killed by a former co-worker. And though there are disputes over whether the case was an example of a broken legal system in the way Grace sometimes describes it -- this story in the New York Observer says the system worked pretty much the way it was supposed to -- the tale of this murder has burnished her reputation as a victims' advocate.
Lunsford seems to have an instinctive talent for handling the press. The general manager of Tampa's ABC affiliate, Bill Carey, even helped Lunsford set up the Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation and sits on its board of directors (Carey was suspended from his job at the station last year after police arrested him following a bizarre hit and run incident; his lawyer is working to finalize a resolution).
But Lunsford will face an uphill battle in trying to sue Clem over his remarks. According to Allison Steele, an attorney who represents the Times on media law issues, Lunsford would have to prove Clem said something he knew was false or was so reckless he essentially made up the things he was saying about the situation -- a high bar to reach.
And the stakes are high: If Clem's charges aren't true, he will have dragged a guy who has experienced the worst loss a parent can bear through yet another agonizing public ordeal.