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New trial dates set for Channon Christian Chris Newsom defendants in Knoxville

7:04 PM, Jan 12, 2012   |    comments
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Video: New trial dates set for Christian Newsom defendants

  • Channon Christian, Christopher Newsom
    

The special judge handling the retrials of the defendants in connection with the January 2007 murders of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom murders says he'd like to have all the cases completed by the end of the year.

On Thursday, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood set out the court dates for all four suspects:

Lemaricus Davidson: June 11
Letalvis Cobbins: August 27
George Thomas: October 22
Vanessa Coleman: November 12

Judge Blackwood also heard motions requesting a change of venue for the trials.

Attorneys for the defendants argued that the intense media coverage -- in print, on television and online -- would prevent their clients from receiving fair trials in Knox County.

But Knox County Assistant District Attorney Takisha Fitzgerald argued that Davidson's previous trial, which was not relocated, should serve as proof that an unbiased jury could be found in Knox County.

In the end, the judge denied a venue change but agreed to bring in jurors from other parts of the state for each trial.

Also at the hearing, Coleman's attorney, Ted Lavit, asked the judge to set bail for his client, citing the fact that she is not charged with a capital offense and had no criminal record when she was arrested at age 18.

Fitzgerald asked for the bail to be set at $1 million, and the judge agreed.

Coleman was 18 when she was arrested, and had no previous record.

Before the hearing ending, Judge Blackwood set several dates for motions and other business for Cobbins and Davidson.

Gary Christian later told 10News that prosecutors told him they planned to ask permission from the state attorney general to go to the appellate court and ask that court to consider the state's appeal of Judge Blackwood's decision to grant new trials.

The DA's office could not confirm that.

Previous story 

The new trials for the four defendants in the Christian-Newsom cases are set to move forward.

A judge denied the state's appeal Thursday morning.

Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood first heard arguments from both sides. Prosecutor Leland Price said the state "respectfully disagrees" with the judge's December decision to grant the new trials, saying he never linked Richard Baumgartner's personal drug problems to any issues inside the courtroom.

Price also asked the judge to consider the potential costs of the new trials, including any charges associated with the changes of venue.

Attorneys for all four defendants spoke, too, in support of the new trials, but none of the defendants was present in the courtroom.

Steve Johnson, attorney for George Thomas, spoke against the state's motion, citing witness credibility issues within the trials.

Judge Blackwood then spoke, saying he understood his ruling had placed an enormous strain on the victims' families and the defendants' families, along with the community.

He went on to say that the court tries to prevent issues such as this one from arising, but added that, when they do, it is the court's duty to correct them.

The judge also talked about not wanting to see the appeals happen 10 or 20 years from now, adding that it is better to have them now and "get them over with," saying he'd like to finish all four by the end of this year for the sake of the families.

In the end, Judge Blackwood denied the state's appeal of the new trials and upheld his December ruling, saying the question of Baumgartner's "fitness" within the courtroom was certainly evidence of structural error in the cases.

He also defended his inability to act as the 13th juror in the cases because of credibility issues.

In response to Price's claim that he never linked Baumgartner's issues outside of the courtroom to issues with the case, Judge Blackwood said that Baumgartner told Deena Castleman, one of the people involved in the TBI investigation of the former judge's actions, that, if he were caught, he would defend himself by saying that doctors provided him with the pills and he got hooked.

Judge Blackwood said that statement should act as proof that Baumgartner "knew each day he might be caught, might be prosecuted," and violated the law each time he took the bench.

At this point, prosecutors will have to appeal directly to the appellate court to avoid these new trials. There's no word yet if they plan to do that, but attorneys tell 10News that process is much more difficult, and the appellate court would use the transcript from Thursday's hearing in making a decision. Attorneys say Judge Blackout opinion would weigh heavily in the case.

Meanwhile, all four defendants have filed motions for changes of venue. That includes Lemaricus Davidson, who did not seek a change of venue during the first trial.

Davidson is the only one facing the death penalty now because none of the defendants can face a harsher punishment than before.

Davidson was sentenced to death; Letalvis Cobbins and George Thomas received life in prison without the possibility of parole; and Vanessa Coleman was sentenced to 53 years in prison.

In Davidson's motion for a change of venue, his attorneys, Doug Trant and David Eldridge, cite the community attention to the cases.

The motion takes a line from the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case:

"The trial excited the nation, obsessed the news media and created a circus atmosphere of 'expert' commentators, tabloid interviews, souvenir hawkers and courtroom grandstanding."

The motion goes on to say that the case has been marked by community outrage, citing rallies held by the KKK and Neo-Nazis.

The motion also states: "The news coverage by the local media has been extraordinarily extensive and prejudicial. The defendant has been called repeatedly in local media over the past five years as the 'ringleader.'"

Davidson's motion also takes issue with the online comments posted by news readers and viewers, citing a Facebook page created since the granting of new trials called "Christian Newsom Outrage." A printout of comments on that page is included as an exhibit in the motion.

The motion points out that the majority of people commenting are from Knox County and the surrounding area, meaning it would be difficult for Davidson to receive a fair trial there.

The motions for a change of venue filed on behalf of the other three defendants are similar, laying out that the chances of a fair trial in Knox County have dwindled further since the new trials, especially in light of Baumgartner's removal from the bench.

In the motion filed on behalf of Coleman, her attorney writes that the 'excitement against the defendant' and other factors supporting change of venue are even more present now.

"It is rare that these cases are not covered by the media in some aspects on any given day, and the coverage only intensified during the events leading up to and surrounding the hearings held on the motions for new trials," the motion states.

Meanwhile, Coleman's attorney is seeking bail, citing the fact she is no longer charged with a capital offense, adding that she was 18 years old at the time of her initial arrest and had no criminal record at the time.

Meanwhile, attorneys for both Davidson and Thomas have filed notices of pretrial motions that require disposition by the court.

In essence, this means that the defendants are asking for new rulings to several past motions. However, they are agreeing to rely on the previously established record. 

Both are asking for new rulings on more than 70 motions but are only asking that arguments be heard in a handful of those.

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