In a major ruling on Thursday, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has recused Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood from presiding over the retrials in the Christian/Newsom murders.
Channon Christian and Chris Newsom were carjacked, raped, and murdered in 2007. Four people were found guilty in connection with their deaths, but those convictions were overturned by Judge Blackwood after the presiding judge, Richard Baumgartner, pleaded guilty to official misconduct and admitted to a prescription drug addiction.
A legal battle ensued, with attorneys for the defendants arguing that their clients should be retried. Judge Blackwood granted those trials on the basis that he, as replacement judge, could not act as the 13th jury in affirming those convictions. Prosecutors disagreed, and have been fighting to get Blackwood removed from the case, arguing that he has lost his objectivity.
The retrials in three of those cases, Lemaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins, and George Thomas, who were all convicted of first degree murder, were stayed until the legal battle was finished. The fourth, for defendant Vanessa Coleman, who was found guilty of facilitation in Christian's death, is set for next month.
Now, those stays will stay in place until a new judge can be appointed to oversee the cases.
In the ruling, the Court "acknowledges that Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood undertook difficult tasks in presiding over the cases involved in this appeal and the State prosecution of former Judge Richard Baumgartner. We have no doubt that Judge Blackwood
subjectively has made every effort to approach these cases in an unbiased manner. We,however, are required to review the record to determine if Judge Blackwood's impartiality could reasonably be questioned by an objective person."
Reviewing all the records from these cases, the Court concluded that "the combination of actions and comments by Judge Blackwood, as detailed in this opinion, would lead an objective person to reasonably question the impartiality of Judge Blackwood in these three cases."
The ruling goes on to say that is very important that the public "have confidence in the fairness and uprightness of the judges created to serve as dispensers of justice.
The Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court will enter an order appointing a replacement judge to rule upon the thirteenth juror issues in all three of these cases, and determine if Davidson, Cobbins, and Thomas should be granted new trials.