Murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom
|Murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom|
|Location||Knoxville, Tennessee, United States|
|Date||January 6, 2007|
|Murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, carjacking|
|Perpetrators||Letalvis D. Cobbins, Lemaricus D. Davidson, George Thomas, Eric Boyd, Vanessa Coleman|
No. of participants
Channon Gail Christian, age 21, and Hugh Christopher Newsom, Jr., age 23, were from Knoxville, Tennessee. They were kidnapped on the evening of January 6, 2007, when Christian's vehicle was carjacked, and taken to a rental house, where both of them were raped, tortured, and murdered. Four males and one female were arrested, charged, and convicted in the case. The grand jury had indicted four of the suspects on counts of capital murder, robbery, kidnapping, rape, and theft, while Eric Boyd was indicted in 2018 on federal charges of carjacking, but also indicted for theft, rape, and murder.
Four of the five defendants (Eric D. Boyd, Letalvis D. Cobbins, Lemaricus Davidson, and George Thomas) had multiple prior felony convictions. After a jury trial, Davidson was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Cobbins and Thomas were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Vanessa Coleman was convicted and sentenced to 53 years in prison (later reduced to 35 years) for facilitating the crimes. Eric Dewayne Boyd was convicted at the federal level and sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for being an accessory after the fact to carjacking, later being indicted in 2018 on state-level charges in the same case more than a decade later.
All of the state convictions had been initially set aside because of misconduct by the presiding judge, who has since been disbarred. Retrials were originally slated for the summer and fall of 2012. The orders for retrials of Davidson and Cobbins were subsequently overturned by the Tennessee State Supreme Court, and their convictions and sentences stand. The Coleman and Thomas retrials resulted in convictions, but with a reduced sentence for Coleman (35 years) and the same sentence for Thomas.
Channon Christian (born April 29, 1985 in Nacogdoches, Texas) moved from Louisiana to Tennessee with her family in 1997. She was a graduate of Farragut High School (2003), and a senior majoring in sociology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Christian was 21 years old when she was murdered.
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Christian and Newsom were leaving an apartment together on the evening of January 6, 2007, to go to a friend's party, when they were abducted with her car from the apartment complex parking lot. Anxious from not hearing from their daughter, Christian's parents sought help from her mobile phone provider. They found her abandoned Toyota 4Runner on Monday, January 8. Police recovered an envelope from the vehicle that yielded fingerprint evidence leading them to LeMaricus Davidson of 2316 Chipman Street, an address two blocks from Christian's car. When police went to the address on Tuesday, January 9, they found the house unoccupied and Christian's body in a trash can in the kitchen.
Newsom's body was discovered near a set of nearby railroad tracks. He had been bound, blindfolded, gagged, and stripped naked from the waist down. He had been shot in the back of the head, neck, and back, and his body had been set on fire. According to the testimony of the Knox County Acting Medical Examiner at the trial of Eric Boyd, Newsom was sodomized with an object and raped by a person. Police believe these actions took place at the house and his body was later wrapped and abandoned.
The medical examiner said that Christian died after hours of torture, sustaining traumatic brain injuries and suffering injuries to her vagina, anus, and mouth due to repeated sexual assault. Before killing her, in an effort to remove DNA evidence, her attackers poured bleach down her throat and scrubbed her body with it. She was bound with curtains and strips of bedding, with her face covered with a trash bag and her body stashed in five large trash bags. These were placed inside a residential waste disposal unit and covered with sheets and garbage from Wendy's. The medical examiner said there was evidence that Christian slowly suffocated to death.
- George Geovonni "Detroit" Thomas (born January 23, 1983) who faced a total of 46 charges. Thomas was indicted on 16 counts of felony murder related to the rape, robbery, kidnapping, and theft of Christian and Newsom, 2 counts of premeditated murder, 2 counts of especially aggravated robbery, 4 counts of especially aggravated kidnapping, 20 counts of aggravated rape, and 2 counts of theft.
- Letalvis Darnell "Rome" Cobbins (born December 20, 1982) faced the same 46 charges as Thomas. He was also charged with assaulting a correctional officer while incarcerated pending trial. In 2003, Cobbins had been convicted of third-degree attempted robbery in New York. He and Davidson are half-brothers.
- Lemaricus Devall "Slim" Davidson (born June 13, 1981) who faced the same 46 charges as Thomas. Previously Davidson had just, on August 5, 2006, completed a five-year sentence in Tennessee on a previous felony conviction for carjacking and aggravated robbery.
- Vanessa L. Coleman (born June 29, 1988) was arrested by the Lebanon Police Department in Lebanon, Kentucky. She faced 40 Tennessee state charges. Coleman was indicted on 12 counts of felony murder related to the rape, robbery, kidnapping, and theft of Christian and Newsom, 1 count of premeditated murder (of Christian only), 1 count of especially aggravated robbery (of Newsom only), 4 counts of especially aggravated kidnapping, 20 counts of aggravated rape, and 2 counts of theft.
In addition, one suspect was initially tried separately indicted by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Tennessee (but would later be tried in Tennessee more than a decade later):
- Eric DeWayne "E" Boyd was arrested in connection with the fatal carjacking; he was not indicted by the Knox County grand jury in 2007, but would be indicted by a separate grand jury in 2018. Boyd faced federal charges as an accessory after the fact for helping the suspects evade the police. Later, Boyd was accused by Thomas and Cobbins of the rape and murder of Newsom; and, a search warrant was obtained for his DNA. The accusations by Thomas and Cobbins did not result in state charges against Boyd.
The four suspects indicted in Knox County were 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 Davidson County (which includes Nashville). 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. Baumgartner ruled that Thomas' phone calls made from the jailhouse to his acquaintances were admissible as evidence.
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 they called Davidson's attorney, Doug Trant, a "jerk", after he interrupted their discussion.
Verdicts from the first trials
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 was the first to go to trial, the only suspect not charged with murder. He was sentenced to the maximum of 18 years in Federal prison. He is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution, Yazoo City, a low-security federal prison in Yazoo County, Mississippi.
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. The jurors unanimously found Davidson should receive the death penalty on the four called capital charges, two first degree felony murder charges and the two premeditated first degree murders of Christian and Newsom. In June 2010, Davidson was sentenced to 80 years for other charges related to the murder. This sentence is to be served consecutively to the death penalties, while the death sentences are also consecutive.
The convictions of Boyd, Cobbins, Davidson, and Thomas left Vanessa Coleman as the last defendant to face trial. She was granted immunity by federal authorities for testimony in the federal case on the car-jacking, but the state courts ruled that the federal grant of immunity could not extend to the state charges on murder and rape.
Appeals and retrials
The defendants in the four state cases from the 2000s 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. He had admitted to being addicted to drugs and to purchasing prescription pain medication from convicts, and was accused by a woman of trading legal favors for sex during breaks in court sessions. These actions were held to have impaired his ability to conduct trials during his final two years on the bench and compromised all trials he held during this time, including the initial trials of the above defendants. Baumgartner was later disbarred as a direct result of his actions.
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.
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 whose sentence had the possibility of parole. Separately, Blackwood denied a change of venue, but allowed for potential jurors to be brought in from outside Knox County. Due to double jeopardy, the defendants faced at maximum the sentences they had already received, and thus only Davidson was eligible for 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 2012, however, 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, 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's 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 and the decisions to grant them. Retrials were denied for Cobbins and Davidson, but were granted for Thomas and Coleman.
Verdicts from the retrials
Facing the same charges as in her first trial, on November 20, 2012, Vanessa Coleman was convicted by a jury of facilitation of aggravated kidnapping, facilitation of rape, and the facilitation of the murder of Channon Christian, but not of Christopher Newsom. These convictions were on lesser charges than her initial convictions.
While the retrial was conducted in Knoxville, the jury for the retrial was selected from Jackson, Tennessee, more than 300 miles west of Knoxville. Blackwood sentenced Coleman to 35 years in prison on February 1, 2013, minus credit for time already served. Coleman will be eligible for parole in early 2019.
On May 17, 2013, the retrial of George Thomas (with a jury empaneled in Nashville) ended in a verdict of guilty on all counts with a lesser charge on count 17. He was re-sentenced to life in prison by the jury, but with the possibility of parole after 51 years. On June 4, 2013, Judge Kurtz sentenced George Thomas to two life sentences (consecutive) for the murders and 25 years (multiple concurrent) for the rapes. In January 2016, Thomas appealed to the United States Supreme Court  but the court did not agree to hear the case.
State trial for Eric Boyd
On March 20, 2018, eleven years after the conclusion of the original litigation, trials, and verdicts, a Knox County grand jury had returned a thirty-six count indictment charging Eric DeWayne Boyd with first-degree felony murder, first-degree premeditated murder, especially aggravated robbery, especially aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated rape in the murders. Boyd was transported from a Federal Correctional Institution in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and booked into the Knox County Jail and held on a $1,000,000 bond. After more than a year in pre-trial motions, Boyd finally went to trial on the state charges in August 2019. Unlike the other trials, owing to a long passage of time between the murders and this trial, the jury was empaneled in Knoxville and not sequestered. Co-defendant George Thomas testified as a witness in the Boyd trial. On August 13, 2019, a jury found Boyd guilty on nearly all charges, including two charges of premeditated first degree murder and multiple charges of rape. The jury returned not guilty verdicts on several more minor charges of robbery. The judge immediately sentenced Boyd to life in prison as this was automatic for a murder conviction.
Vanessa Coleman, the only female charged and convicted in the crimes, is held at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville. Serving a sentence of 35 years, Coleman was eligible for parole in 2017 and her sentence expires on December 20, 2036. In August 2014 the families of the victims were notified that with good behavior, Coleman's sentence is being reduced by 16 days per month of incarceration, making her eligible for parole consideration in October 2014. The parole hearing was rescheduled from October to December. At the December 2014 hearing, Coleman was denied parole and her next parole consideration date was set for December 2020.
Cobbins and Thomas were originally incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. After the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in Pikeville opened in 2012, they were transferred to that facility. Cobbins is serving a life sentence without parole, and Thomas is serving 123 years to life, being eligible for parole in June 2064. Davidson was sentenced to death on October 30, 2009, and imprisoned at Riverbend. Eric Boyd, who had been serving his sentence of 18 years at Federal Correctional Institution, Beckley, a medium-security prison near Beaver, West Virginia, was potentially eligible for release in 2022, but found guilty on charges of rape and first degree murder on August 13, 2019. He will face new sentencing on some charges but was immediately sentenced to life in prison by the judge who stated that a life sentence was automatic for the murder conviction.
According to the Associated Press, some bloggers and media critics claimed that the story was ignored by the national media because the victims were white while all five of the suspects were black. Most news reports came from local media and online news sites. Erroneous early reporting made claims of dismemberment and mutilation of Christian's body. The District Attorney denied most of the original reports containing misinformation; the source was a federal deputy US Marshal after the suspects' arrest in Kentucky.
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 was 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 Attorney 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 represented motives of racial hatred. Conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin repeated this opinion on her blog and on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor program. "If this wasn't a hate crime, then I don't know how you would define a hate crime," said Newsom's mother. "It may have started out as a carjacking, but what it developed into was blacks hating whites. To do the things they did, they would have to hate them to do that." 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 attracted the attention of white supremacists. On May 27, 2007, around 30 white supremacists led by Alex Linder rallied in downtown Knoxville in order to protest against the murders. They were met by counter-protesters, many of whom were dressed as clowns (parodying the Ku Klux Klan).
After the protest, columnist Leonard Pitts dismissed claims that the crime was under-reported. He cited a 2001 report by the Berkeley Media Studies Group which found that "Blacks and Latinos are underrepresented in news media as victims of crime and significantly overrepresented as perpetrators." Pitts wrote: "I am [...] unkindly disposed toward the crackpots, incendiaries and flat-out racists who have chosen this tragedy upon which to take an obscene and ludicrous stand."
However, Rev. Ezra Maize, the president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP, addressed the case, saying:
It doesn't make me uncomfortable speaking out against this crime because it was African-Americans [allegedly] committing a crime against Caucasians ... It's not a black-and-white issue. It's a right-and-wrong issue. Those who committed this crime were unjust in doing so and they should pay the penalty.
The house at 2316 Chipman Street was bought by Waste Connections, a national garbage collection company that had a depot on the next lot. Waste Connections demolished the house in October 2008, with a spokesperson stating that the company's intent is to replace the house with a memorial dedicated to Newsom and Christian.
- 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.
- 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 in his name to a graduating Halls High School baseball player.
- Channon's father, Gary Christian, speaks at churches proclaiming how, in Spring 2017, he asked God to restore him from his pervasive anger. He presents compelling testimony of how he is overcoming the anger that most East Tennesseans saw played out during news articles throughout the duration of the trials and appeals.
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