CHAMBERS CASE FOOTWORK

When we first began the Unsolved project, reporters were asked to read about the case, share their thoughts, and come up with a list of topics, questions and story ideas that could be explored. Here are some of their initial impressions:

“Chambers clung to life briefly after being rescued by paramedics, but died from extensive injuries in a Memphis hospital. Family and friends said Chambers had been planning on going to college and earning a degree the coming year. She wanted to become an accountant. Yet despite all the media attention . . ., North Mississippi police officials have yet to make real strides in this frustrating case . . In the coming months, one can only hope that there will be another lead to keep the case going long enough for investigators to make an arrest, Jessica Chambers can have the justice she so rightfully deserves, and her family, can have closure, after so much pain and suffering.” – McKenna Wierman

“Chambers death has since been classified as a homicide despite the fact that officials have yet to emerge publicly with a prime suspect in the case. While Panola County law enforcement officials are doing everything they can to put the pieces together, there are still many unanswered questions. Panola County has enlisted help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Marshal; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the United States Attorney’s Office; the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation; and the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Even with all of these powerful organizations collaborating to uncover the truths about what really happened to Chambers, nearly three and a half months later, there is no one behind bars for her murder.” –  Jordan Dollenger

“I don’t think I have ever heard about a murder so weird and mysterious . . I don’t understand how police haven’t been able to identify a possible suspect if they’re able to identify that this was definitely a homicide. I get the feeling that there are loopholes in this case, and I’m not sure why, but it’s definitely something that people are going to catch onto soon, and I think that will be what eventually leads to solving this unsolved murder.” – Jana Rosenberg

“Once the two-month anniversary of the teen’s death was reached, citizens across the nation began to question the capability of local authorities to bring justice for Jessica. With headlines reading ‘Finding Jessica Chambers’ killer turns cold,’ officials had to reach out assuring the nation that the case was far from cold. In referencing accusations from the public, local officials expressed that secrecy is a must, and the dissemination of information to the public must be judicious when there’s still a killer on the loose . . .Solace may be found in the notion that authorities are much more knowledgeable than the public has been led to believe.” – Ann Marie Edlin

“Much of the talk about ‘suspects’ in this case have been fueled by social media, such as blogs and Facebook, as well as gossip in the community regarding the case . . Despite the empty accusations of social media users and the speculations that concerned citizens have, law enforcement officials have few leads, and have not made a single arrest in the case.” – Yusuf Abusharif

“It has been over three months since the horrific event, and there are rumors of the case going cold. However, social media and internet bloggers are successfully keeping Chamber’s story alive and continued speculation circulating. There are numerous campaigns, Facebook and Twitter accounts that are dedicated to raising support for Chamber’s case and her family. These outlets are selling T-shirts, organizing fundraisers and posting continuous updates from the police department as fast as they can get them. . . Hopefully, with continued press promotion, support will finally give way to concrete evidence and conviction(s) in Jessica Chamber’s case.” – Virginia Driftmier

“While researching this story, I originally came up with the idea to go interview friends of Jessica from her school in Courtland, and write a story on the positive aspects of her life, and who she was. I feel too often that these tragedies focus on the horror of the case’s details when they should be memorializing a person who was lost. However, the case does need to be covered because the Chambers family deserves justice after months without any leads about who killed this bright and friendly girl. While reading this case, I wondered why more people haven’t stepped up around the community to help Jessica’s parents get justice . . It’s clear to me that there is something off in the timeline on the day of her murder, and more should be done to find out what happened that day.” – Megan Myers

“The news that rocked a small community has reached the national level, gaining the support from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which added $25,000 to the award established to help find the person responsible for Chambers’ death. Money is the driving force for most people to act and say things they would not normally do, but it has not been helpful in this case so far.” – Lindsey Edwards

“Jessica Chambers’ case drew nationwide attention. Some of the reports given were verified with credible sources, and some were not. However, unaccredited sources seemed to fill social media with alleged gang activity, racially-motivated crime, and corruption of authority figures . . . How does biased reporting from theorists and politically-motivated websites affect the case’s progression for the police? . . In the comments sections of newspaper sites, racially-motivated theories were extremely common. The Ferguson case is fresh on the minds of students, as similar cases continue. One could compare the reporting of conservative vs. liberal news sites’ coverage of high profile topics like the Chambers case. In what ways do the reporting styles vary? Does leaning one way really affect who reads a certain newspaper?” – Katelin Davis

“As I think about the case, I wonder about things from both a journalist’s and citizen’s perspective. I wonder if Chambers knew her killer, if the people of Courtland and Batesville will ever feel safe again if no one is caught and convicted.” – Kendra Taylor

Some of the topics reporters listed as the basis of possible stories were the following:
Drugs
Gangs in the Mid-South
Gang violence
Domestic violence
Surveillance regulations
Forensics equipment and failure
Courtland, Panola County, Mississippi and U.S. crime, homicide and arson statistics
Hate crimes
Racism and criminology
Private investigators
Social media
Cold cases
Small town crime
Economic impact
Small town gossip

Advertisements

CHAMBERS CASE TIMELINE

By Katelin Davis
University of Mississippi

Much like other 19-year-olds from Panola County, Jessica Chambers had recently graduated and was planning to attend college next fall. Those plans came to a tragic end Dec. 6, 2014, when authorities found Chambers burning by her car on Herron Road in Courtland, Mississippi, around 8 p.m. She was transported to the Regional Medical Center in Memphis where she died.

CBS reported that Chambers was able to communicate with workers before her death, but authorities have not released her final statements. Her death was ruled a homicide. According to autopsy reports, Chambers died from the burns that covered 98 percent of her body.

Local Memphis news released a timeline of Chambers’ movements prior to her murder on Dec. 6, 2014. This timeline shows:

  • Chambers was at home with her parents until 5 p.m.
  • She left her home and traveled to a local gas station.
  • From there, Chambers went to an unknown residence in Courtland before traveling to Batesville.
  • She arrived back in Courtland around 6:30 p.m.
  • Authorities do not know where Chambers was located from 6:30 p.m. to 7:31 p.m.
  • Officials reported a call between Chambers and her mother at 7:13 p.m.
  • At 7:31 p.m., Chambers’ car was reported parked on Herron Road.
  • 911 received a call from a passing driver reporting Chambers’ burning car at 8:09 p.m.
  • Gas station surveillance video shows Chambers waving to a person off camera. Chambers then walks toward the person, returns to her car shortly after and leaves the gas station.

COURTLAND TODAY

By Ann Marie Edlin
The University of Mississippi

Months after the death of a Panola County teen, remnants of scorched earth are still visible on the shoulder of rural Herron Road, where Jessica Chambers and her Kia sedan were set alight on a brisk, Mississippi winter evening. The bark of the large pine tree shading the scene of the crime is charred. Broken glass and soot still litter the ground.

As the road winds west of Courtland, one could easily miss the scene of the crime, which is curiously nestled back in the trees about 20 feet from the road. It has been reported that Chambers was at her eventual murder location for about 45 minutes before anyone saw the fire and contacted local authorities. The vast amount of time that passed before authorities were contacted seems more plausible after visiting Herron Road where traffic is scarce and there are no lines where the lanes end or begin.

Wreaths and polyester flowers spanning the color spectrum, and letters left by mourners adorn the tiny plot of land where the teen and her car were burned.

Secured to a nearby tree, a laminated sign reads, “CASH FOR HOT TIPS ARSON, REWARD” with a $5,000 dollar incentive to hand over any information one may have leading to the arrest and arson conviction of any person responsible. That reward has made a significant leap to over $54,000.

The bright yellow walls and red support beams of the gas station where Jessica Chambers was last seen alive makes it noticeable off of Hwy 51. On Dec. 6, 2014, the surveillance video of Chambers captured at this gas station was recorded about 90 minutes before she was burned alive, officials said. The surveillance captures Chambers summoned by someone outside of the gas station, just out of the camera’s view.

Shortly after, another camera at the gas station captures a man filling up a gas can, then leaving the gas station on foot, heading in the same direction as Jessica.

If you take the shortest route by car from the gas station to the place where the burning occurred, you will have driven precisely 1.4 miles, an easy distance to be covered on foot. The mystery man with gasoline in hand has been ruled out as a suspect, and locals say that the man on foot is a “completely harmless” gas station regular.

A mere hour and a half later, emergency responders discover a horrific scene. Jessica Chambers, was found staggering away from her incinerated car with burns covering over 98 percent of her body.

When authorities reached Chambers, they made it with just enough time to hear Chambers mumble a few words regarding the attack. What Chambers said has not only been withheld from the public, but apparently her own father.

The victim’s father, Ben Chambers, a mechanic for the Panola County Sheriff’s Department, told reporters in a televised interview that Chambers said a name to authorities at the scene of her death. Chambers’ father claims to not know the name, but said that he hopes his daughter’s last words will lead to her killer.

Driving through Courtland, one would never suspect that something so horrendous had taken place in the small, seemingly deserted town.

Several residents interviewed would not go on record with their real names. One longtime resident of Panola County said she believes that “racially, there is a divide in the community” regarding the topic. She also said discussion of the topic seems to have declined.

Once the two-month anniversary of the teen’s death was reached, citizens across the nation began to question the capability of local authorities to bring justice for Jessica. With headlines reading, “Finding Jessica Chambers’ Killer Turns Cold,” officials had to reach out assuring the nation that the case was far from cold.

Another resident said she didn’t feel uncomfortable living in the county where the murder took place with no known suspect behind bars, and she believes the local police know more than they are telling the public.

With a population hardly breaking the 500 mark, it seems as if someone would have come forward with a name, yet the usual chatter on the street has been hushed.

Save

NEWS AND POLITICS

By Katelin Davis
The University of Mississippi

The elephant in the newsroom is growing. So is the donkey. And they’re pushing consumer reliability out the window.

A recent study showed consumer trust in national news sources has decreased in recent years. The study also showed the believability of a news source could be directly related to a consumers’ political association and the politicization of news sources.

So what’s the problem?

With individual conservative sites and accredited news stations both covering the Jessica Chambers case and other high profile cases, the trustworthiness of sources matters for the popularity and credibility of distributed news.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center for U.S. Politics and Policy, the difference in where online adults get their news is as diverse as the arguments between conservative and liberal political parties. The amount of trust liberal vs. conservative viewers placed in certain news sources also differs drastically according to the report.

The chart below shows that consistent conservative readers cite Fox News as the most reliable news source, while consistent liberals list NPR, MSNBC and The New York Times as their most trusted sources.

PJ_14.10.21_mediaPolarization-11

The chart’s findings are similar to reactions from students and professors interviewed at the University of Mississippi.

DSC_1169

Angela Payne, 21, is a political science and psychology major at the University of Mississippi.

Angela Payne, 21, is a senior psychology and political science major at the University of Mississippi. She is originally from Guntersville, Alabama.

Payne believes news sources began including bias in reporting to increase ratings. According to Payne, the divide between liberal and conservative news stations makes news more interesting to the typical consumer.

“They need ratings, and if it’s not interesting, or if it doesn’t seem like there is a huge divide, then it’s not worth watching,” Payne said. “It becomes about entertaining, not just reporting.”

While the entertainment value may increase, the credibility of the news source can decrease because of biased reporting according to Payne.

“I think it’s important to cover both sides of a story,” Payne said. “Personal agendas shouldn’t get in the way of news sources. People are looking for information, not your opinions. It’s harder to disassociate opinions and facts when you are supposed to be getting it from a reliable news source if they are including bias toward a certain political party.”

Another report released by the Pew Research Center for U.S. Politics and Policy showed consumers criticize reporting of traditional news sources. 66 percent said news sources are generally inaccurate, and 77 percent said news sources favor one side of a story.

While the distrust of national news sources is high, consumers have started to find new outlets to obtain their news.

“I still try to get my news from places like BBC World News, primarily because they have less of an agenda,” Payne said. “It is typically more – here are the facts of this incident and its repercussions. I think it’s easier to just take in facts that way.”

DSC_1155

Professor Heather Ondercin shared her thoughts on bias in today’s news.

Heather Ondercin is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. Ondercin believes individual programs and editorials of news outlets contain bias, but overall, major news sources give balanced information to their viewers.

Ondercin said biased news reporting can affect how a viewer understands high profile cases like the Chambers case.

“The framing of different incidents or issues can really matter in terms of people’s reactions to them and their understanding of them,” Ondercin said. “We depend so much on the news media for what’s going on in the world. How the media presents it matters.”

Jamie Nelms, an adjunct instructor for the University of Mississippi’s sociology department, shared her thoughts on the current presentation of news. To her, the politically biased nature of news stations makes them unreliable for the typical viewer. Nelms believes bias is allowed to continue because of news stations and viewers’ actions.

“I think a bias is included in news because people like to associate with politics and beliefs they support,” Nelms said. “People feel more comfortable associating with those that fall within the same categories. No one likes to have their comfort system challenged … and unfortunately, news stations grab a hold of this and run with it.”

While Nelms believes watching the biased stations is voluntary and potentially problematic for understanding high profile cases, she has hope the everyday consumer can change the way they view certain cases.

“If people would lower their guard about those who don’t align 100 percent with their viewpoints, then they can begin to see all sides of the spectrum,” Nelms said. “There’s probably always going to be a difference of opinions. One would hope not, but things haven’t changed socially. This clouds our perception of news stories and influences our choosing of certain news stations.”

Hear more of the interview with Professor Heather Ondercin here.Save

Save

A LEGAL VIEW

By Chloe Scott
The University of Mississippi

Courtland resident Jessica Chambers, 19, was pronounced dead Dec. 6, 2014, after police say she was burned in her car. The case remains unsolved in the small town with a population of 512.

Phillip Broadhead, clinical professor and director of The University of Mississippi School of Law, said cases that happen in small towns are often easy to solve because everyone knows each other.

“But in the same way, they can be very difficult to solve because things that happen in small towns, by definition, don’t have a lot of people around that can actually witness what happened,” he said. “In cases where people try to cover up for one another because it is a small town, it can be very difficult.”

Broadhead said Chambers must have known the person responsible for her death. He recalled the 1990s case of Holly Bobo, a Tennessee resident last seen entering the woods with a man in camouflage.

The remains of her body were found in 2014. Bobo’s death was ruled a homicide. Broadhead said Bobo was kidnapped from her property by someone she knew, and detectives had a difficult time solving the case.

“It’s the same small town dynamic up there,” he said. “You’ve got the very small handful of people that know about the crime and who did it, and they aren’t talking. This case (Chambers) would indicate to me that there is a small amount of people who knew, maybe even just one or two, that were involved in the thing.”

Broadhead said small town police officers are often not equipped to handle difficult cases.

“All of the proof basically presented in court comes from either the police who investigated the case or the investigator of the (district attorney’s) office,” he said.

Broadhead said the amount of time that passes after a crime is committed without being solved often impacts the outcome of the case.

“Unless they have a break pretty soon, like all murder cases, cases start to go cold after the first 48 hours,” he said. “Without being able to develop suspects you can talk to and put pressure on to get this type of information, the more time that passes, the less likely it is that the crime will be solved.”

Broadhead suspects that only a couple of people were involved in the crime. He said burning evidence is a typical way to cover up a crime.

“That’s a very typical type of maneuver, which is not only to burn the property – in this case, her car – but to also burn her, in the sense of not being able to come up with any forensic evidence from the body. That plays into the difficulty of the case too.”

CRIME AND SOCIAL MEDIA

By Katelin Davis
The University of Mississippi

The murder of Panola County resident Jessica Chambers sparked national attention. The coverage of Chambers’ case varied from articles in renowned newspapers like The New York Times to individual Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Obtaining news through social media has increased in recent years. News distribution through social media has affected traditional news sources, criminal procedure and citizens’ viewpoints on high-profile criminal cases like the Chambers’ case.

According to a Pew Internet Research Project in 2014, 74 percent of online adults use social media. The following graph from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows the percentage of people who get news from social media sites.

PEJ_12.03.12_Fig.1a_FacebookNews-01

With Chambers’ case currently reaching over 16.2 million hits on Google, local newspapers have learned to use social media to their advantage.

John Howell Sr. grew up in Panola County. His father co-owned the local newspaper named The Panolian, and Howell worked on the newspaper during high school in the 1960s. Howell is now co-owner of The Panolian and has watched the newspaper evolve to fit the technological age.

“The newspaper’s role has rapidly changed,” Howell said. “Where once we might have been the primary disseminator of news in the community, we are now one of many sources. To counter that, we strive to be the most accurate source, offering more depth than what people can learn from social media sources.”

While The Panolian strives to give its community members accurate news, individual social media accounts have also taken advantage of the popularity of social media to distribute their ideas about Chambers’ case.

One Twitter account, known as Anonymous, blamed potential gang activity for Chambers’ murder. While the Panola County Police Department did not confirm gang activity in the murder, Anonymous linked Chambers’ ex-boyfriend, Bryan Rudd, to the crime.

Charles Mitchell, the assistant dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi, shared his concern about the use of social media by unaccredited sources to report on high-profile cases.

“People have always speculated about significant events,” Mitchell said. “The difference is that social media facilitates instant public speculation on a global basis. A T weet from Courtland can immediately be seen in France. ReTweeting can be exponential. Social media doesn’t differentiate between fact and fiction, so both can spread with equal speed.”

Darby Hennessey, 19, is originally from Portland, Oregon. She is a sophomore at the University of Mississippi majoring in journalism. Hennessey acknowledges social media’s role in criminal cases. To her, social media influences how news consumers view potential suspects, especially in racially motivated accusations.

“Chambers’ ex-boyfriend was portrayed in a very negative manner online, which is pretty typical of media and society in general nowadays,” Hennessey said. “Just look at Ferguson and other recent racially-charged cases lately. The media displays the less appealing and trustworthy photos in hopes of diminishing their credibility… The media and society are not easily convinced of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ standard.”

Mitchell also compared the outpouring of social media interest in the Chambers’ case with other high-profile cases. Mitchell believes social media can be an asset to the police during criminal investigations.

“The most prominent example is the tracking of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing,” Mitchell said. “Boston police used traditional and social media proactively and reactively in finding the brothers believed to be responsible. Social media today is the ‘wanted poster’ of the Old West, but on major steroids.”

University of Mississippi School of Law Dean Richard Gershon also believes social media can be used positively in high-profile cases. According to Gershon, social media gives people an outlet to offer information about a case.

“I don’t think people really understand how powerful social media is,” Gershon said. “Everybody has access to social media … Things that used to happen in a small town in an isolated way where no one knew about an injustice get out there pretty quickly. Social media can give us insight to those who have committed a crime.”

While police departments can use social media positively, social media coverage also presents problems according to Mitchell and Gershon. Both concluded that social media makes it harder to find an impartial juror for a high-profile case like Chambers’.

“The Sixth Amendment requires an impartial jury,” Mitchell said. “For many decades, the definition has been a person who does not prejudge and is able to reach a verdict based only on the evidence at trial.

“It would seem to make it more challenging when you Google ‘Jessica Chambers’ and get 15.7 million hits, but there have already been high-profile cases in the social media era where jurors have returned verdicts that were not in line with prevailing opinion.”

According to Gershon, the University of Mississippi Law School has started to cover the importance of social media for lawyers in their courses. Jess Waltman, a University of Mississippi Law School student originally from Quitman, Mississippi, shared his experience with social media instruction in his courses.

“Two of my professors have specifically covered social media in class, but I think it should be a fairly common thing to cover, given how pervasive social media is,” Waltman said. “In my municipal law practice class, Professor Ben Griffith taught us how attorneys should be trained in social media so they can effectively advise their clients about how to use social media properly.”

While newspapers and law classes have adapted to fit the increasing coverage of crime cases through social media, Gershon believes some aspects of social media reach farther than the business world.

“I hope people don’t lose sight of the tragedy,” Gershon said. “The use of social media makes us distant.”

Beri Glover, 19, is a sophomore communication sciences and disorders major at the University of Mississippi. She is originally from Panola County and graduated with Chambers. Glover also believes accusations on social media can alienate the reader from the victim in a criminal case.

“The theorist groups’ reports and the false accusations on social media are harmful to not only those that are being attacked, but also to the people who are reading lie after lie,” Glover said. “In this day and age, people just want to read on the topic as long as it is interesting. The truth is not as important.”

Hear more of the interview with Dean Richard Gershon here.

CRIME REWARDS

By Colin Preston
The University of Mississippi

As humans, we love to be rewarded – a gold star for doing well in school, a raise and promotion for an excellent job at work.

A reward can offer the incentive to help others. And rewards are used by law enforcement agencies to help solve crimes.

We have seen this method in Western films – a bounty given to capture criminals. However, it is still used today, as seen in the recent Jessica Chambers case. A reward was offered, though no one has stepped forward with information that has led to a conviction.

Dr. Jeffery Johnson, a former member of the Kansas Highway Patrol – Capitol Police, has a master’s degree in criminal justice and a doctorate in education. He teaches criminal justice and legal studies at the University of Mississippi. Johnson also has a gang specialist certification from the National Gang Crime Research Center.

Johnson said offering rewards in crimes often helps police.

“It could hinder, but many times it does help,” he said. “You will, at times, have so many phone calls coming in that the investigation is back-logged trying to sort through all of the information. It is great that folks are trying to give information, but there are those who are simply calling with information that may or may not be relevant.”

Johnson said reward money for criminal investigations comes from a variety of sources.

“That depends on who is wanting the information,”  Johnson said. “If it’s a government entity, they have money in the budget. If it’s Ole Miss, then it’s the alumni. Some of it is private.”

The reward money offered in the Jessica Chambers case comes from federal law agencies, such as the U.S. Marshals Office, the FBI, the Mississippi State Fire Marshal’s Office and the nonprofit organization, Crime Stoppers.

Crime Stoppers is an organization that sometimes offers rewards for crime tips leading to an arrest.

Johnson said the amount of money offered depends on different things, including the severity and notoriety of the crime.

“I have seen from a few hundred dollars to millions,” he said. “For instance, look at how much money the government offered for the sons of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, etc. Compare that to JonBenet Ramsey.”

Money offered for the capture of Saddam Hussein’s sons was in the millions. The U.S. government has offered $25 million dollars for the terrorist, Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to a 1996 article published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, an award of $118,000 was offered for information leading to a conviction in the JonBenet Ramsey case. Ramsey, 6, was murdered in the basement of her home in Boulder, Colorado.

The reward in the Jessica Chambers case was $53,000 dollars as of January of 2015. The reward offer has increased with time.

Police do not always offer a reward to help solve a crime.

“I have seen (cases) where there is no reward and people just come forward to do the right thing,” said Johnson. “An award is an incentive. Usually the bigger the case, the more the money. Sometimes, the only folks who know the information have to be enticed to give up the information. In other words, it’s the ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality.”

Johnson said rewards can encourage people to come forward, even if they are scared, or they can tap into greed. Ultimately, Johnson said he believes rewards are helpful.

“I believe so,” he said. “I, personally, am one who wants to do the right thing. Money, no matter how much it is, will not sway me. But we are usually looking at folks who need to be enticed because they have the information. As I stated earlier, we have to make it good for them.”

There is often someone out there who holds the key to bringing justice for a victim and their families. The rewards offered in the Jessica Chambers case may one day be claimed and her assailant caught.