KNOXVILLE, Tenn — A judge agreed Monday to approve a plea deal that features a reduced sentence for convicted killer George Thomas in exchange for his testimony against co-defendant Eric Boyd in the murders of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom.
Prosecutors offered Thomas the deal if he would testify at Boyd's August trial for the 2007 murders. Newsom's family helped broker the deal because they believe that Boyd was actually the one who killed their son after he was carjacked and raped.
Thomas was convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder in the killings and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. He was challenging those convictions at the time of the Boyd trial, and that challenge was a key component that had to be resolved in order to finalize a deal for a new prison sentence.
Thomas was serving a sentence of two life terms plus 25 years.
Senior Judge Walter C. Kurtz, who actually presided over Thomas' retrial in the murder case six years ago, appeared reticent last week in a hearing on whether he had the authority to approve a deal as originally proposed.
Lawyers agreed to reset the hearing to Monday to see if they could refashion the deal and allay the judge's concerns. That's now been done.
The agreement was complex, involving a package of more than 40 criminal counts.
One stark change from his original convictions: With Monday's deal numerous counts of rape against Thomas were reduced to aggravated assault. He was adamant he did not rape Channon Christian or Chris Newsom as originally convicted by the jury in 2013.
By agreement, Thomas withdrew his legal challenge to some of his 2013 convictions. The state also agreed to let his challenge be granted in some of his other convictions, setting them aside completely so that he could enter guilty pleas to a collection of charges.
Essentially, on Monday, Thomas and the state agreed to throw out most of the 2013 case and start from scratch with him pleading guilty to a bill of charges for an agreed sentence of consecutive 25-year terms to be completely served.
But, the Tennessee Department of Correction will have the discretion of granting Thomas a reduction in prison time for good behavior amounting to 15 percent of his total sentence.
The aim between defense attorney Les Jeffress and Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen's office was to stick to the original, agreed upon term: 50 years to be served at 85 percent by Thomas in exchange for his testimony against Eric Boyd.
Making sure Thomas understands
Judge Kurtz called Thomas to the stand to ensure Thomas understood the agreement.
“Believe me, your honor, I know each and every one of these charges,” Thomas said.
Thomas, if he behaves in prison, could get out of prison one day while in his 60s rather than in his 80s as originally convicted and sentenced.
Thomas seemed to listen intently to the judge and mostly gave one-word answers to his questions.
He paused for a very long time when the judge asked him if he agreed that he was a violent offender, a condition of sentencing. He paused so long, in fact, that the judge asked if he wanted to speak with his lawyer.
Thomas finally affirmed he was a violent offender after the judge restated the question.
The judge read through all of the reduced charges and asked Thomas how he would plead. Thomas replied "guilty" to each of them.
Kurtz then offered family members of the victims an opportunity to give a victim impact statement before he made the ruling official.
The parents of both victims were in the courtroom, as they've been for all court hearings related to the case. Only Hugh and Mary Newsom, Chris Newsom's parents, stepped forward to speak, and both took the time to thank George Thomas.
"I wanted to thank Mr. Thomas for having the courage to do what he did," said Mary Newsom. "And I don't believe you were ever a violent criminal."
"We're thankful for Mr. Thomas coming forth and doing this. I hope at the end of your sentence you become an abiding citizen. Thank you for taking the time to do this for us," said Hugh Newsom.
Boyd was ultimately convicted of the murders and rape of Christian and Newsom.
The Newsoms said they always thought Boyd was a key player in their son's killing. They wanted him to be convicted.
"Eric Boyd was the culprit to the whole crime," Hugh Newsom said after the plea hearing.
Boyd faces sentencing Sept. 18 in the rapes and kidnappings of the victims. He got automatic life terms last month when the jury found him guilty of murder.
Convicted killer George Thomas was back in court on Wednesday as a judge considered his sentencing agreement.
Thomas cut a deal to get time off his sentence in exchange for his testimony in the Eric Boyd trial.
Assistant District Attorney Phil Morton made the case in front of the judge that he can approve the deal.
The judge asked for the state and defense to make their case that he has the authority to cut the sentence a jury gave Thomas.
The two sides did so in a joint memo. This was the first time the judge said he has ever seen the prosecution and defense submit a joint memo.
The judge asked how the state learned Thomas was willing to testify. The Newsom family was involved in pushing the state to ask Thomas if he’d testify.
The judge ultimately said court would resume on Monday to give attorneys time to resolve some differences in evaluation of the agreement.