Judge again grants Christian-Newsom defendants new trials

Judge again grants Christian-Newsom defendants new trials

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Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood granted new trials Wednesday to three of the four defendants in the Channon Christian/Christopher Newsom murder and torture case. It was the second time the judge has made that decision.

Judge Blackwood's terse, four-paragraph order gives new trials to LeMaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins and George Thomas, just as he did in December 2011

They and a fourth defendant, Vanessa Coleman, had all been found guilty of several charges stemming from the January 2007 slayings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom.

Coleman was also granted a new trial, but in her case prosecutors have not been contested the decision.

Blackwood's original ruling came after former Judge Richard Baumgartner pleaded guilty to official misconduct and resigned from the bench in March 2011. Baumgartner had presided over the original trials of the four defendants.

Baumgartner resigned after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation showed evidence he had committed several crimes during the time of the trials, including doctor shopping and buying pills from a felon and Baumgartner's mistress. He was also accused of sitting on the bench at trial while under the influence of pain pills.

Blackwood granted new trials to the defendants saying Baumgartner failed in his responsibilities as a judge to serve as the "13th juror" and failed to give the defendants a constitutionally sound trial.

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in May that Blackwood used faulty legal reasoning in his first ruling and sent the case back to him for reconsideration.

In his new decision, Judge Blackwood cited again Baumgartner's failure to preside as the 13th juror.

"They (the Supreme Court justices) also said we want you to revisit the issue of 13th juror. Could you be Judge Baumgartner and look at the transcripts and make a finding and Judge Blackwood just very promptly said no," explained 6 News legal analyst Greg Isaacs. "He said under Rule 25 that he cannot put himself in Judge Baumgartner's seat, wear his robe and determine the credibility of the witnesses."

Late last week the Knox County District Attorney General's office filed a motion asking Blackwood to recuse himself from the case.

The motion questioned Blackwood's impartiality in the case, saying the judge had already decided to grant new trials to the defendants without another hearing.

No hearing was held after the Supreme Court sent the case back to Blackwood.

In sending the case back to Blackwood, the Supreme Court ruled that actual proof of structural error must be shown before new trials can be granted.

In his order Blackwood says he "is obligated to grant the defendants a new trial."

Since there was no hearing, Isaacs says the next step will be an appeal from the prosecution. "We're entitled to a hearing on the motion for new trial. We're entitled to call witnesses and put on proof so once again we go to the court of appeals and Supreme Court."

Isaacs says it could take years, or even decades, for this case to come to a conclusion. "The defense lawyers are thinking of taking the issue of structural error, Judge Baumgartner's impairment, up to the United States Supreme Court and that is an extremely lengthy and complex process."

He says the outcome of this case impacts dozens of other cases Judge Baumgartner heard in the past, including some clients Isaacs represents. "Other Baumgartner cases are kind of ebbing and flowing as this legal battle continues."

Officials with the DA's office say they're reviewing Judge Blackwood's order to determine their options.

"I don't think it's right. I don't think it's fair. I'm with the DA 100%. He should recuse himself," said Channon Christian's mother, Deena.

"They were tried once. Even the Supreme Court didn't find anything wrong with the way Baumgartner handled the situation in those trials. "I don't know how they do things in West Tennessee, but in East Tennessee, we're here for justice and I think both Channon and Chris deserve it."" she added.

The Christians also say Judge Blackwood's decision is confusing because he gave Baumgartner a "slap on the wrist" for his criminal actions. The ex-judge received a suspended sentence and two years of judicial diversion.

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