A special judge has ruled that two of the defendants in the murders of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom will not be retried, however the third man, George Thomas, does deserve a new trial.
The written ruling was issued Tuesday by Judge Walter Kurtz.
He denied the motions for a new trial for the alleged ringleader, Lemaricus Davidson, and his brother, Letalvis Cobbins. They were both convicted of first degree murder and other charges related to the 2007 deaths of the young Knox County couple. Davidson is currently on death row. Cobbins is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
George Thomas will get a new trial because Judge Kurtz feels he is unable to carry out the Court's duty as thirteenth juror.
In a criminal jury trial, Tennessee law requires the trial judge serve as "thirteenth juror." This means that when the jury returns a guilty verdict, the verdict is only valid if approved by the trial judge.
In the case of these defendants, the trial judge, Richard Baumgartner, admitted to an addiction to prescription pain killers. He resigned from the bench and was later convicted on federal charges.
The defendants asked for a retrial because a new judge could not act as the 13th juror to confirm the rulings. The first judge selected to oversee the cases, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, did order new trials initially, but after a long legal battle, was removed from the cases of the three male defendants.
The fourth defendant, Vanessa Coleman, was granted a new trial and was once again convicted, though on some lesser charges, for her part in the crimes.
When Judge Kurtz was assigned to the case, he "certifies that he thoroughly familiarized himself, read, and viewed the records, exhibits, and read the transcripts of this case."
In regards to the 13th juror rule, Judge Kurtz writes, "If the weight of the evidence is raised in the motion for a new trial, a successor judge can make the ruling required by T. R. Crim. Pro. 33(d) if the judge can familiarize him/herself with the trial record, and witness credibility is determined not to be the "primary issue" or "overriding issue" at the trial. If witness credibility is the primary or overriding issue at trial then the successor judge will be unable to rule on the motion for new trial and a new trial must be granted."
He did not grant new trials for Davidson and Cobbins because witness credibility was not the overriding factor in the case. He wrote, in Davidson's case, "There is physical evidence, forensic evidence, and unrefuted facts unequivocally supporting Defendant Davidson's conviction over and above any determination of the credibility of the live witnesses who testified at trial."
"They didn't deserve one and neigher did Coleman. In my opinion, neither does Thomas, but I guess the judge sees it differently. Having to do it once is better than having to do it three times," said Channon Christian's dad, Gary Christian.
"I wanted all three to be turned down. I see this as a partial victory. At least the judge had a clear understanding of what had taken place," said Chris Newsom's dad, Hugh Newsom.
When referring to Cobbins, he wrote, "There is physical evidence, forensic evidence, Mr. Cobbins' own testimony, and unrefuted facts all supporting Mr. Cobbins' conviction over and above any determination of the credibility of the live witnesses."
However, in George Thomas' case, he did believe that witness credibility was important. He wrote, "The Court is of the opinion that the resolution of the Thomas case does involve an overriding issue, or primary issue, of credibility. Essentially it is a case of Mr. Thomas' rendition of non-involvement in his statement to the police against the inference to be drawn from his presence at the Chipman Street house, relationship with Mr. Davidson and Mr. Cobbins, as well as collateral facts consistent with the possibility of involvement. His story is not impeached by physical or forensic evidence, nor is it "blatantly contradicted" by the record. The importance of credibility is in direct proportion to the lack of irrefutable corroborating evidence."
Judge Kurtz concludes, in the case of Thomas, "The undersigned has familiarized himself with the record in this case and he must reluctantly conclude that he is unable to certify his ability to sit as thirteenth juror in this case and therefore a new trial must be granted."
"We'll be there until we get the justice that we want," said Newsom's mom, Mary Newsom.
"We'll be there if we have to crawl," continued Hugh Newsom.
No new trial date has been set for George Thomas. Judge Kurtz believes he will hear the the retrial.