Judge in Christian-Newsom case throws out decision to grant new trials, delays recusal decision

12:20 PM, Jun 21, 2012   |    comments
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  • It appears it could be months before the judge now at the helm of the Christian-Newsom murder trials will decide whether he will step down from the cases as prosecutors have asked.

    In the meantime, he has tossed out his previous order granting new trials to Lemaricus Davidson and Letalvis Cobbins, pending a review of the trial transcripts and a hearing set for August.

    Channon Christian and Chris Newsom were carjacked, raped, and murdered in 2007.  Four defendants were convicted in connection with their deaths, but those convictions were thrown out after drug abuse by former judge Richard Baumgartner came to light. 

    Previous: Judge grants new trials in the Channon Christian, Chris Newsom murders

    Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood on Wednesday filed the order related to his review of the cases and possible recusal. He set a hearing on that matter for October.

    This comes after a June 14 hearing on the recusal issue during which the judge implied he had made the decision not to step down from the cases. 

    That hearing became heated when the judge got into a verbal argument with Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols, eventually threatening to hold the DA in contempt of court.

    The hearing was held in response to the state's motion to recuse and motion to set aside the order granting new trials for three of the defendants.

    Judge Blackwood again granted new trials for Davidson, Cobbins and George Thomas on June 5 after the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled Blackwood's previous decision to grant new trials.

    The justices concluded that there was no evidence that former judge Richard Baumgartner's admitted drug abuse outside of the courtroom affected the outcome of the cases. 

    In his new order, Blackwood based his decision on the 13th juror rule.

    In the state's motion, prosecutors cite four reasons Judge Blackwood should recuse himself from the cases.

    First, they claim Blackwood has become too emotionally invested in the cases and is incapable of following the supreme court's instruction in the case.

    The motion cites previous statements Blackwood has made in court about Baumgartner's admitted prescription painkiller addiction.

    "Now, I've said this before, that when I read that, the entire TBI report, I was simply horrified," the motion states.

    Prosecutors go on to say, "the State's only option is to see recusal so that a different judge who lacks the emotional investment of this Court can fairly and impartially preside over the motions for new trial."

    Second, the motion argues that Blackwood's "reliance on ex parte communication during this litigation undermines confidence in its fairness and impartiality." 

    Prosecutors cite a September 2011 communication in which Judge Blackwood sent an email to defense counsel only asking about dates for the new trials without copying the state.

    "The only way the state found out about this ex parte communication was through the integrity of the defense attorneys who copied the state in their replies to the court," the motion states.

    Third, prosecutors argue the judge's "lack of candor with the local media has failed to promote the public confidence in the integrity of this court."

    The motion cites a December 2011 email in which Blackwood writes, "I prefer this method. Unless the media hacks our email, this precludes our discussion from the public."

    Finally, the motion states that "new guidance by the Tennessee Supreme Court suggest the motion to recuse should be addressed first before any further action is taken in the case."

    With the judge's new order Wednesday, that decision is not set to come until an October 8 hearing.

    Meanwhile, the order also sets a hearing date of August 17 for Blackwood's decision on the Davidson and Cobbins cases after his review of the transcripts.

    The order notes that his previous order granting a new trial for Thomas still stands.

    The motions and appeals have not included the fourth defendant, Vanessa Coleman, whose new trial is still set for November.

    Under the judge's order, prosecutors have five days to file any additional documents or exhibits in the case.

    "We're studying the order and will be responding appropriately," said John Gill, special counsel to the district attorney.

    One of those exhibits could be an audio recording and transcript from that heated June 14 hearing.

    Prosecutors filed a motion Tuesday seeking that evidence.

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