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Channon Gail Christian, 21, and Hugh Christopher Newsom, Jr., 23, were a couple from Knoxville, Tennessee. They were raped, tortured, and murdered after being kidnapped early on the morning of January 7, 2007. Christian's vehicle had been carjacked. Five suspects were arrested and charged in the case. The grand jury indicted four of the suspects on counts of capital murder, robbery, kidnapping, rape, and theft, while a fifth was indicted at the federal level.
Of the four charged at the state level, three (Letalvis D. Cobbins, Lemaricus Davidson, and George Thomas) had multiple prior felony convictions. After a jury trial, Lemaricus Davidson was sentenced to death by lethal injection and Letalvis Cobbins and George Thomas were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Vanessa Coleman has been convicted of facilitating the crimes and sentenced to 53 years in prison, and Eric Dewayne Boyd has been convicted of federal charges as accessory after the fact to carjacking and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The state convictions were set aside because of misconduct by the presiding judge, who has since been disbarred; retrials (pending appeals in all except the Coleman case, whose retrial is not being contested) had been tentatively slated for the summer and fall of 2012, but in May 2012 the Tennessee Supreme Court vacated the motion for new trials. All of the state convictions were permitted to stand and the defendants remain incarcerated pending appeals.
Christian moved from Louisiana to Tennessee with her family in 1997. She was a graduate of Farragut High School and a senior majoring in sociology at the University of Tennessee. In 2008, a Golf Tournament and Memorial Foundation were established in Channon Christian's memory to provide a scholarship for a Farragut High School Senior to attend the University of Tennessee.
Newsom, a former baseball player for the Halls High School Red Devils, graduated in 2002. He was interred at Woodhaven Memorial Gardens. A little-league baseball tournament in Newsom's honor was held at the Halls Community Park in 2008 and 2009. A memorial scholarship is given annually to a graduating Halls High School baseball player.
Christian and Newsom were leaving an apartment together to go to a friend's party when they were abducted from the apartment complex parking lot.
Christian's parents found her abandoned Toyota 4-Runner two blocks away from the Chipman Street house the following Monday with the help of her mobile phone provider. An envelope recovered from the vehicle yielded fingerprint evidence that led police to Lemaricus Davidson and 2316 Chipman Street. When police went to the address on Tuesday, January 9, they found the house unoccupied and Christian's body in a bin in the kitchen.
According to the testimony of the Knox County Acting Medical Examiner Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan at the subsequent trial of Eric Boyd, Newsom was repeatedly sodomized with an object and then blindfolded, gagged, arms and feet bound and his head covered. Barefoot, he was dragged outside the house to a set of nearby railroad tracks. He was shot in the back of his head, neck and back and his body was then set on fire.
According to the testimony of the medical examiner, Channon's death came after hours of torture, having suffered injuries to her vagina, anus and mouth. She was raped with an unidentified object and beaten in the head. It was also reported that her body was scrubbed with bleach which was also poured down her throat, in an attempt by her attackers to remove DNA evidence, while Channon was still alive. She was then bound with curtains and strips of bedding, her face covered with a bin liner and her body stashed within five large bin bags, before being placed inside a residential waste disposal unit and covered with sheets. The medical examiner said there was evidence that Channon slowly suffocated to death.
The four indicted were:
In each indictment, the large number of rape counts were included to provide a range of options for prosecutors, not to reflect the number of rapes that actually occurred.
The four suspects indicted in Knox County were originally scheduled to be tried separately, at trials scheduled between May and August 2008. In February 2008, the trial date for the subjects indicted in Knox County was moved to 2009. Judge Richard Baumgartner allowed Thomas and Cobbins to be tried by juries from Nashville, Davidson County. In an apparent attempt to force the prosecution to try the case with the least forensic evidence first, the attorneys for Thomas filed a motion for a speedy trial, arguing there was no forensic link between their client and the crime scene. Thomas was granted the motion and was scheduled to go on trial on August 11, 2008. Judge Baumgartner ruled that Thomas' phone calls made from the jailhouse to his acquaintances were admissible as evidence.
District Attorney Randy Nichols announced that the state would seek the death penalty for both Cobbins (the first to go to trial) and Coleman if convicted. Davidson was also indicted for a second robbery which was committed after the murders. The publicity against the accused led the defense to argue that a change of venue was required in order to ensure a fair trial. The state argued that an impartial jury could be found during voir dire, and the presiding judge subsequently denied the motion as "premature". Judge Baumgartner threatened to ban the Newsom family from the courtroom after Davidson's attorney, Doug Trant, was called a "jerk" after interrupting a discussion among the family.
On April 16, 2008, Eric Boyd was found guilty in Federal court of being an accessory to a fatal carjacking and for failing to report the location of a known fugitive. Boyd's was the first case to go to trial, and he was the only suspect not charged with murder. He was sentenced to the maximum of 18 years in Federal prison. He is currently incarcerated at Beckley FCI.
On August 25, 2009, Letalvis D. Cobbins was found guilty of the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Cobbins faced the possibility of the death penalty because he was convicted of first degree felony murder in the case of Christian. He was found guilty of facilitation of murder for Newsom but he was acquitted of Newsom's rape. The jurors worked about 10 hours Monday and on Tuesday morning before reaching a verdict. On August 26, Cobbins was sentenced to life without parole.
On October 28, 2009, Lemaricus Devall Davidson was found guilty on all counts. He was found not guilty on three counts of the aggravated rape of Christopher Newsom but was found guilty of the lesser included charges of facilitation of rape. The jury sentenced Lemaricus Davidson to death on 4 of the conviction counts.
On December 8, 2009, George Thomas was found guilty on all counts, including the ones the other defendants were acquitted of . The jury returned a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole on each of the 4 capital convictions.
The convictions of Boyd, Cobbins, Davidson and Thomas left Vanessa Coleman as the last defendant to face trial. Coleman's case is complicated by the fact that, while she was granted immunity by federal authorities for testimony in the federal case on the car-jacking, the state courts have ruled that the federal grant of immunity does not extend to the state charges on murder and rape. On May 13, 2010, Coleman was acquitted of first degree murder but found guilty on lesser charges. On July 30, 2010, she was sentenced to 53 years behind bars.
The defendants in the state cases (excluding Eric Boyd, who was convicted at the federal level) all appealed their convictions. During this time, the sentencing judge, Richard Baumgartner, one of Knox County's three Criminal Court judges, was forced to resign from the bench in March 2011 after admitting he had a drug addiction and had been having sex and purchasing pills during breaks in court sessions, thus impairing his ability to conduct trials during his final two years on the bench and compromising all trials he held during this time, including the initial trials reviewed above. Baumgartner has since been disbarred and is under federal investigation. On December 1, 2011, seven weeks after Baumgartner's disbarment became final, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood granted new trials to all four state defendants after a TBI investigation outlined evidence that Baumgartner was likely impaired while presiding over those trials (other criminal cases heard during the time period were also overturned for retrial). Jurors expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, noting that they, not Baumgartner, who favored the defense during the trial, convicted the killers.
Blackwood tentatively set retrials for between June and November 2012, pending state appeals of the decisions, and set bail at $1 million USD for Coleman, the only defendant who did not receive a sentence with no chance of parole. Separately, Blackwood denied a change of venue, but did allow for potential jurors to be brought in from outside of Knox County. Because of double jeopardy, the defendants will only face the sentences they already received at maximum; as such, only Davidson can face capital punishment. The decision to hold retrials for Cobbins, Davidson, and Thomas (the decision to retry Coleman was not appealed) was affirmed in a split decision by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals on April 13. In May of 2012, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned Blackwood's ruling ordering new trials for Cobbins, Davidson, and Thomas, commenting that its "order should not be construed as condoning or excusing" Baumgartner's misconduct.
In June 2012, a prosecutors filed to have Judge Blackwood recused from the case after he invoked the "13th juror rule" to reverse himself and decline to grant new trials for Cobbins and Davidson (the motion for recusal also applies to Thomas' case, although he is still set to have a retrial). The motion cites Blackwood's emotional involvement in the case as potentially interfering with a fair trial. Following Blackwood's recusal, Senior Judge Walter Kurtz was named to oversee the retrials, which have not yet occurred as of December 2012.
The national news media was criticized for allegedly ignoring the story because the victims were white and the suspects black; most news reports came from local media and online news sites. This criticism was also fueled by erroneous early reports of dismemberment and mutilations. Most of the original reports with misinformation (reported from a federal deputy US Marshal after the suspects' arrest in Kentucky) were later denied by the District Attorney.
The president of Criminal Justice Journalists, an association of crime, court and prison writers, editors and producers, said, "I can't say that this one would have had any more coverage if five whites had been accused of doing these things to two blacks, absent a blatant racial motive... as bad as this crime is, the apparent absence of any interest group involvement or any other 'angle' might also explain the lack of coverage." Police Chief Sterling Owen IV said that there is no indication the crimes were racially motivated and that the murders and assault "appears to have been a random violent act." "There is absolutely no proof of a hate crime," said John Gill, special counsel to Knox County District Atty. Randy Nichols. "We know from our investigation that the people charged in this case were friends with white people, socialized with white people, dated white people. So not only is there no evidence of any racial animus, there's evidence to the contrary."
Some commentators continued to disagree, claiming that such a crime would include a motive of racial hatred. Conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin repeated this accusation on her blog and on Fox News' O'Reilly Factor program. Prior to the DA's statement, Newsom's mother sympathized with the "hate crime" position stating, "It may have started out as a carjacking, but what it developed into was blacks hating whites." Christian's father (addressing those whom he believes used his daughter's death to further their own agenda) stated "[the crime] ain't about you."
The case also attracted the attention of white supremacists. On May 27, 2007, around 30 white supremacists led by Alex Linder rallied in downtown Knoxville in protest of the murders. They were met by counter-protestors, many dressed as clowns (parodying the Ku Klux Klan).
After the protest, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts dismissed claims that the crime was underreported, citing a 2001 report that found "Blacks and Latinos are underrepresented in news media as victims of crime and significantly overrepresented as perpetrators." Pitts added that he was "unkindly disposed toward the crackpots, incendiaries and flat-out racists who have chosen this tragedy upon which to take an obscene and ludicrous stand" and that they and any other white Americans who felt victimized by the perceived under reporting could "cry me a river."
The house at 2316 Chipman Street was bought by Waste Connections, a national garbage collection company with a depot next door to the east, in the fall of 2008. Waste Connections subsequently demolished the house, and replaced it with a simple memorial to Newsom and Christian.
An October 16, 2009 article in The Daily Mail stated, "Ironically, the case has now generated more publicity surrounding the furor over whether or not political correctness was behind the US media’s decision to largely ignore the story than it did for the murders themselves."