Murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom
Channon Gail Christian, 21, and Hugh Christopher Newsom, Jr., 23, were an unmarried couple from Knoxville, Tennessee. They were kidnapped the evening of January 6, 2007 when Christian's vehicle was carjacked, and taken to a rental house, where they were raped, tortured, and murdered. Five people 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 on federal charges of carjacking.
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 convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Letalvis Cobbins and George 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 for facilitating the crimes, and Eric Dewayne Boyd was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for being an accessory after the fact to carjacking.
The state convictions were all 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 reduced sentences. Coleman's sentence was reduced to 35 years, and Thomas' sentence was reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
The case generated controversy as some critics questioned whether the US media under reported the original story because of "political correctness," and whether the events should be classified as hate crimes.
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 via her car from the apartment complex parking lot.
Worried about not hearing from their daughter, Christian's parents sought help from her mobile phone provider. They found her abandoned Toyota 4-Runner 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 the Christian's car. 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.
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 Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan 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 Channon died after hours of torture, suffering injuries to her vagina, anus, and mouth in repeated sexual assaults. Bleach was poured down her throat and used to scrub her body while she was alive in an attempt by her attackers to remove DNA evidence. She was bound with curtains and strips of bedding, 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. The medical examiner said there was evidence that Channon slowly suffocated to death.
Suspects and indictments
|Eric DeWayne Boyd
Letalvis Darnell Cobbins
LeMaricus Devall Davidson
George Geovonni Thomas
|See list to left|
|Conviction(s)||See here and here|
The four indicted by Tennessee prosecutors were:
- George Geovonni "Detroit" Thomas (born January 23, 1983), 24, 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), 24, 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 brothers.
- Lemaricus Devall "Slim" Davidson (born June 13, 1981), 25, 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 Coleman (born June 29, 1988), 18, 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 each indictment, the numerous rape counts were included to provide a range of options for prosecutors, not to reflect the number of rapes that occurred.
In addition, one suspect was separately indicted by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Tennessee:
- Eric DeWayne "E" Boyd, 34, was arrested in connection with the fatal carjacking; he was not indicted by the Knox County grand jury. 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 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 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'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 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 multiple counts, including the ones for which the other defendants were acquitted. 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. 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. 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.
Appeals and retrials
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. He had admitted to being addicted to drugs and to having sex and purchasing pills from convicts 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. (Other criminal cases heard during the time period were also overturned for retrial.) Jurors expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, noting that it was they – not Baumgartner, who allegedly favored the defense during the trial – who 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 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. Because of 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. But, in May 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, 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 and the decisions to grant them. Ultimately, retrials were denied for Cobbins and Davidson, but a retrial was granted for Thomas. (Coleman's retrial was unaffected by the motions.)
Verdicts from the retrials
Facing the same charges as in her first trial, on November 20, 2012, Vanessa Coleman was convicted by a mixed-race 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 in western Tennessee, more than 300 miles west of Knoxville on I-40. Judge 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, Senior Judge Walter Kurtz. gave George Thomas two life sentences (consecutive) for the murders and 25 years (multiple concurrent) for the rapes.
Vanessa Coleman, the only female charged and convicted in the crimes, is held at the Tennessee Prison for Women. Serving a sentence of 35 years, Coleman is eligible for parole in 2017 and her sentence is to end no later than 2042. 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.
Cobbins and Thomas were originally incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. After the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex 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.
Davidson, sentenced to death, remains housed at Riverbend, the prison location of the state's death row. Appeals are pending.
Eric Boyd, who was convicted on federal charges, is serving his sentence of 18 years at FCI Beckley, a medium-security prison in West Virginia. With time off for good behavior (there is no parole in the federal prison system), Boyd is eligible for release in early October 2022.
Reaction and racism
According to the Associated Press, bloggers and media critics complained that the story was ignored by the national media because the victims were white and 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 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 represented motives of racial hatred. Conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin repeated this opinion 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-protesters, many dressed as clowns (parodying the Ku Klux Klan).
After the protest, Leonard Pitts, a black syndicated columnist, dismissed claims that the crime was under reported. He cited 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 that had a depot on the next lot. Waste Connections demolished the house in October 2008, with a spokesman stating that the company's intent is to replace the house with a memorial dedicated to Newsom and Christian.
An October 16, 2009 article in the Daily Mail said, "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."
- 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.
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- Newsom, Christian Family Reaction w/Video
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- Victim's father: 'One down, four to go', knoxnews.com, April 16, 2008 (extensive details of the crimes)