Judge: No decision on retrials for Christian-Newsom suspects until January

7:38 PM, Dec 13, 2012   |    comments
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Three men already convicted in the brutal murders of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom are appeared in a Knox County court on Thursday.  But, the victim's families will have to wait until January for the judge's decisions on their retrials.

"I'm kind of disappointed. I expected to hear something better than what we heard. It's just kind of another continuation...continuation and wait," said Mary Newsom, Chris's mother.

Letalvis Cobbins, Lemaricus Davidson, and George Thomas all played a role in the couple's deaths almost six years ago. Special Judge Walter Kurtz is taking up their motions for new trials.

Letalvis Cobbins hearing began at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday.  He was in court with his court-appointed defense attorney Kim Parton.  Cobbins had asked for an acquittal several weeks ago, which Judge Kurtz denied. Parton told the judge her team didn't have enough time to prepare for Cobbins's first trial because they were investigating Eric Boyd, who has never been charged in either murder.

George Thomas's hearing was the second hearing before Judge Kurtz.  Thomas was not in court.  He was represented by defense attorneys Steven Johnson and Tom Dillard.  

Dillard argued that Thomas was arrested without warrant, which makes the arrest invalid.  He argued that the statement Thomas gave to police about what happened the night of the murders should not be used at trial.  This was the same defense used in his original trial.  

Johnson raised the issue that Thomas' defense now has evidence they did not have in his initial trial.  The evidence is DNA from Eric Boyd that was found on a holster in a car he was driving on the night of the murders.  The defense did not have the holster for DNA until after Thomas's trial. Boyd is another man whose name has come up throughout the cases as being involved in the murders.  He has never been charged.  

Prosecutor Leland Price told the court, "The evidence was always there. If they wanted to test it, they could have."  The state has never been able to link the holster to the crimes.

Johnson said the the evidence against Thomas is circumstantial, and isn't weighty enough to convict him.  Price disagreed, and raised the issue that the defense never had an issue with witness credibility during the initial trial.

The day began with Davidson in court, along with his court-appointed defense attorney David Eldridge.  Eldridge used the same argument the defense presented in Davidson's initial trial; that Davidson knew Christian prior to the murders, that she was a drug user, and that he had consensual sex with her.  Eldridge also told the court that there is no forensics evidence that Davidson killed Newsom, and that he left the house on Chipman Street, where Christian was held before she was killed.

Christian's dad, Gary, became visibly upset as Eldridge alleged his daughter was a drug user and wasn't raped, and left the courtroom for 30 minutes. 

"And he attacked my daughter. And he attacked me and mine. And no body's going to attack my daughter and not have me to deal with," said Gary Christian.

Christian's mom, Deena, and Newsom's parents, Hugh and Mary remained in the courtroom.  They have been at every trial or hearing concerning suspects in crimes against their children.

Knox County Assistant D.A. TaKisha Fitzgerald argued that the state proved all the elements in the case the first time around.  Fitzgerald stated that evidence is the key to the case.  

"She was bound. She was placed in a trashcan, and she suffered serious bodily injury by dying. The defendant admits that she was the victim of a kidnapping. That was the proof on the witness stand," explained Fitzgerald.

The big issue at stake is whether Judge Kurts feels he can act at the Thirteenth juror in all three cases.  He must grant new trials if he thinks he can't.

Eldridge told Judge Kurtz he has an obligation to do his due diligence.  "The trial court has a duty to act at the thirteenth juror to review and weigh the evidence, to grant a new trial if he disagrees with the jury's decision," Eldridge said.

Judge Kurtz will have to make decisions about the retrial motions by reading through trial transcripts and looking at the physical evidence submitted during the initial trials.  

Eldridge told the judge that he "respectfully" doesn't think he can serve as the 13th juror in this case; much of the human element of the case is lost by reading the trial proceedings on paper. The defense believes Judge Kurtz need to actually hear from the witnesses themselves in order to make a fair decision; that can't happen without a retrial. Judge Kurtz can only act as the Thirteenth juror if he determines witness credibility is not key.

"The existence of forensic evidence doesn't eliminate the credibility of witnesses," said Eldridge.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, believe the transcripts and evidence is enough information for Judge Kurtz to make his decision.

Fitzgerald told the court, "Chris' stuff was found at Davidson's house.  He was wearing Chris' shoes when he was arrested."

Most of the evidence the state presented in all three initial trials is circumstantial, and there is a lot of it.  Prosecutors told the court they believe the volume of evidence makes their case, and that none of the defense attorneys had issues with witness credibility during the initial trials.

Thursday's hearing is the result of a of a string of motions filed by Davidson, Cobbins, and Thomas over the past year. Former Knox County Judge Richard Baumgartner presided over the initial trials.   He pled guilty to official misconduct in March 2011, admitted to using prescription pills while on the bench, and resigned his position.  That behavior created grounds for the defendants to ask for new trials.  

Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood was assigned the cases.  He granted retrials earlier this year citing he could not serve as the Thirteenth juror.  The state appealed those decisions.  After months of back and forth, the cases eventually went to the State Supreme Court.  It eventually pulled Judge Blackwood from the cases and re-assigned them to Judge Kurtz.  

The Christian and Newsom families relive their grief every time one of the suspects appears in court.  Thursday's hearings come less than a month after they sat through the week-long retrial of Vanessa Coleman.  She was a fourth suspect in the murders. The new jury found her guilty on 13 of 17 charges she faced, including facilitation of Christian's murder.  She will be sentenced on February 1, 2013.  She is currently serving a 53 year sentence from her first trial.

"I think if he follows the law, I think they will not get a new trial," said Gary Christian.

Newsom and Christian were kidnapped the weekend of January 7, 2007.  Both were tortured, raped, and murdered.  Christian was held captive and endured hours of abuse before she was bound and placed in a trash can.  The medical examiner determined she suffocated to death in the trash can.  Newsom was bound and shot several times.  His body was eventually set on fire on railroad tracks near the house on Chipman St. in East Knoxville where Christian was held captive.  

Davidson is currently on death row.  Thomas and Cobbins are both serving life sentences.

Judge Kurtz told the court during Thomas's hearing early Thursday afternoon that he won't issue any decisions until mid-January 2013.  First, he wants to hear an evidence motion Davidson filed last week.  That is set for January 10, 2013.  He said he will issue written findings sometime after that.

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On Thursday a senior judge will decide whether to move forward with the re-trials of three defendants in the Christian-Newsom murders.

Lemaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins and George Thomas will appear before Senior Judge Walter Kurtz at hearings in Knox County. The state supreme court appointed Judge Kurtz to the case after the court of criminal appeals removed Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood.

Former Judge Richard Baumgartner presided over the original trials, but in 2011 he pleaded guilty to official misconduct and admitted to pain pill abuse. That's what prompted the request for new trials.

A jury initially convicted the three defendants in the kidnap, torture, rape and murders of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom.

Davidson received the death penalty, and Cobbins and Thomas were sentenced to life in prison. Because of the double jeopardy rule, none can be found guilty of any higher crime in a re-trial.

The fourth defendant, Vanessa Coleman, has already had a new trial. Last month a jury found her guilty of facilitation of murder in the death of Christian. Her sentencing is set for February 1.

Thursday's hearings begin at 9 a.m. We will stream the hearings here on WBIR.com live.



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