KNOXVILLE (WATE) – It has been 10 years this week since the heinous kidnappings, rape and murders of a young Knoxville couple. The crime forever changed two families, resulted in several new laws and led to years upon years of court proceedings.
The randomness of the crimes left the community in fear and the victims’ families have been forced to constantly relive the nightmare, appearing in court more than 350 times in their pursuit of justice.
Timeline:Christian-Newsom murder trials
Channon Christian, 21, and her boyfriend Chris Newsom, 23, did not arrive at a friend’s party on January 6, 2007, and never returned home to their parents. They were last seen at the Washington Ridge Apartments. The next day, a train conductor reported a body near the railroad tracks and 9th Avenue in East Knoxville. The next day it was learned the bound and burned body was that of Chris Newsom and later it was revealed he had been raped, beaten and shot.
Tim Miller was the first reporter from WATE on the scene.
“We started hearing on Sunday from family members that two young people were missing and that is when we learned of the discovery of Chris’s body,” he said in a recent interview.
In the hours that followed, fear set in about Channon Christian’s fate. Chris Newsom’s own father fought back tears.
“He would not have hesitated one moment with her in danger, without putting his own life on the line. He was that type,” said Hugh Newsom in 2007.
Meanwhile, friends and family started their own massive search, leading to Channon Christian’s abandoned Toyota 4Runner, not far from where Chris Newsom’s body had been found. On January 9, fingerprints in the car led to a house at 2316 Chipman Street A body was found, but not immediately identified.
Friends and family feared the worst and later investigators confirmed Channon Christian was dead. She was found in a trash can – beaten, raped and with bleach poured down her throat. The medical examiner determined she suffocated in the trash can.
WATE 6 On Your Side legal analyst and attorney Greg Isaacs remembered what it was like as the true details of the crime started leaking out.
“Then the injuries and the extent of the torture, and how the victims were found started permeating out. And you could tell… veteran prosecutors were impacted and couldn’t talk about it,” he said. “This was a very horrific and sinister crime that touched everyone involved and started permeating throughout the community.”
By the next day, a manhunt had begun. The first two names released by police were half brothers Lemaricus Davidson and Letalvis Cobbins. Davidson had lived at the Chipman Street home and already faced aggravated robbery and carjacking charges. He had not been out of prison for long and was wanted in Knoxville for driving on a suspended license.
A tip a day later led to Lebanon, Kentucky. State, federal and local law enforcement agencies – including the Knox County sheriff himself – teamed up to arrest Cobbins and another suspect, George Thomas.
The finger pointing started immediately. During interrogation, Cobbins said he saw Davidson and another suspect, Eric Boyd, commit the carjacking.
“They jump out of the car and run to a white SUV and, um, there were two people – a man and a woman at the SUV. They jump in, pointing guns at them and… and um… they carjacked them, I guess,” said Cobbins during a recorded interrogation.
The same day Cobbins was caught, the search in Knoxville led to a home on Reynolds Street and Lemaricus Davidson. It later came out that it was Boyd who had told police to go there.
Police said at the time they had everyone they were looking for, but a few days later there was another arrest in Kentucky: Cobbins’s girlfriend Vanessa Coleman. She had admitted to being at Chipman Street the night of the crime and that she had been told it was Davidson, Cobbins and Thomas who burned Chris Newsom’s body.
She also told investigators she saw the men repeatedly go in and out of the bedroom where Channon Christian was tied up and blindfolded.
“It was after he choked her and she was laying on the floor. He hollered at me to come in there and check on her pulse. He said that he couldn’t tell if she was dead or not,” she said in a police interview.
Meanwhile, Davidson had also been talking to investigators. The specifics of his story kept changing over the course of two and a half hours as he laid blame on the others – Cobbins for the carjacking, Thomas for killing Chris Newsom and he insisted he did not rape Channon Christian.
Eric Boyd was the first to go to trial in April 2008, but Boyd faced charges as an accessory after the fact, not for the murders or rapes, despite what the other suspects told police. His face was federal, meaning no cameras were allowed in the courtroom.
In a police interrogation tape, Boyd portrayed Davidson as the killer. The defense said Boyd stopped helping Davidson after learning his parts in the murders. The verdict was guilty and the sentence was 18 years. The Christian and Newsom families recognized this was only the start.
More than a year later in August 2009, Letalvis Cobbins was the defendant in the first state trial. A jury was brought in from Nashville because of all the publicity. Cobbins started the trial by entering surprise guilty pleas to lesser charges.
“Letalvis Cobbins made bad choices. He’s manned up this morning and taken ownership of them,” said his attorney at the trial.
Evidence from Channon Christian’s rape kit showed DNA from Cobbins and Davidson. The most graphic testimony came from the medical examiner: signs of multiple attackers and the news that both Channon Christian and Chris Newsom had been raped. Christian was raped repeatedly and left to suffocate in a trash can. Newsom was bound, gagged, shot execution style, and burned. Grim photographs left a mark on the people who saw them.
“I’ve seen autopsy photos of homicide cases, abuse cases for two decades. Once I saw three to four of those photos, I left the courtroom,” said Isaacs.
“I saw a few of the pictures. It’s just very difficult. I don’t know how the families listened to the testimony and looked at these pictures, but it was important, I think, for people to understand this is what happened to these people and this is what happened in Knoxville,” said former WATE anchor Gene Patterson.
The defense maintained that while Cobbins was there for the carjacking and kidnapping, and did rape Christian, it was his older half brother Davidson who had done the killing. Another surprise was when Cobbins himself took the stand.
“She said, ‘Please can you just convince him to let me go?’ I said I’ll try,” said Cobbins on the stand, describing an exchange with Channon Christian.
Then the verdict came. He was found guilty on all but five counts, but received the life sentence, not the death penalty. The families were let down.
“What do you got to do to earn the death penalty in this state?” asked Gary Christian, Channon Christian’s father, after the trial.
Mid-October 2009 brought Lemaricus Davidson’s trial and much of the testimony had been heard before. However, the defense was using its cross-examinations to raise questions about the victims, with talk of Adderall to cram for tests and marijuana use. Chris Newsom’s friend Josh Anderson spoke about their marijuana use.
“He’s not the one on trial. Those kids were totally, completely innocent,” said his mother Mary Newsom.
After a week of testimony and eight hours of deliberations, Davidson was found guilty of first degree felony murder of both Channon Christian and Chris Newsom. During the sentencing phase, the victims’ families told the jury of their loss.
“My life will never be the same because of a senseless crime by people who have no regard for life,” said Mary Newsom.
Davidson’s half-sister described a rough upbringing and an abusive mother, but the jury wasn’t swayed and sentenced him to death.
A few weeks later, in December 2009, George Thomas went on trial and a Chattanooga jury was brought in to hear the case. Prosecutors admitted they didn’t have much physical evidence to tie him to the murders, but Thomas was there and they argued he was responsible, showing the jury just how tiny the house was.
The defense argued it was reprehensible for Thomas not to help the victims, but not criminal. The jury convicted Thomas on every single charge from kidnapping to rape and handed him a sentence of life without parole.
Last to go on trial was Vanessa Coleman in May 2010 with another out-of-town jury, this time from Nashville. Coleman’s attorney at first said his client would take the stand, but that never happened. The jury returned not guilty verdicts on the charges related to Chris Newsom’s rape and murder and guilty verdicts on lesser charges for facilitating the rape and murder of Channon Christian.
The circumstances surrounding the final months on the bench by Judge Richard Baumgartner, the man overseeing the state trials in this case, are still shocking. Court watchers first got a clue that something was wrong at the end of the Vanessa Coleman trial. The judge was slurring his words and sounding sleepy as he led the jury through the charges.
Former district attorney Randy Nichols says his office didn’t know how bad off Baumgartner was.
“Everybody knew that Judge Baumgartner suffered from physical injuries and was not overly spry. We knew that, so when you would see him, it wouldn’t raise much suspicion,” he said.
On January 27, 2011, there was an announcement made that Baumgartner would be taking a leave of absence for medical reasons. The next day, the TBI confirmed it was investigating Baumgartner and had been for a while.
Then on March 10, he pleaded guilty to state charges of official misconduct and admitted his addiction to prescription painkillers.
“I have lately let this system, this community, let my family down,” he said.
The plea deal gave him judicial diversion and he resigned from the bench. Attorney in the Christian-Newsom cases began putting the wheels in motion for the sentences to be overturned.
In June 2011, there was a sign there might be more to Baumgartner’s case from the ex-wife of Chris Gibson, a man prosecutors identified as the judge’s drug dealer.
“Richard Baumgartner, he got a smack on the hand. He walked out and he should have had to do more than treatment, I think. He was buying multiple pills that I knowed of,” said Darlene Gibson.
It turned out she was right. The TBI’s report, released in December of that year, was full of eye-popping details. Deena Castleman, a woman in Baumgartner’s drug court, said the two had a sexual relationship and she supplied him with pills. He even visited her in the hospital during the Davidson trial to get his fix. Baumgartner ended up serving around five and a half months in federal prison over what was in that file. He was released in 2013.
Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood granted the motion for all four suspects to get new trials.
The retrials and further court proceedings
Prosecutors appealed that decision and the retrials were eventually whittled down to two: George Thomas and Vanessa Coleman. Coleman went first.
The jury was brought in from Jackson for the trial that began on November 13, 2012. The testimony revisited familiar yet still shocking facts. The prosecution said Coleman was left alone with Channon Christian when the others left to get rid of Chris Newsom.
“All the stuff that she knew. She had the opportunity to get herself out of the house. She had the opportunity to save Miss Christian,” said prosecutor Takisha Fitzgerald.
The defense tried to paint Coleman as a victim, a young woman who was too scared to leave. Her attorney said the prosecution couldn’t prove what Coleman’s role was.
“The government, with all its resources, has not put on not one witness to swear under oath what happened at Chipman Street. Not one witness took this witness stand to tell you what happened that day,” said defense attorney Ted Lavit.
After nine hours of deliberations, the jury found her guilty on 13 of the 17 counts. The most serious was facilitating the rape and murder of Channon Christian. She was found not guilty on the one count relating to Chris Newsom.
“Chris died protecting my daughter that night. She got enough justice for them both today,” said Channon Christian’s mother Deena Christian after the verdict was read.
“She deserves to spend the rest of her life in jail,” said Channon’s father Gary Christian.
Thomas’s retrial came around in May 2013, again with an out-of-town jury. Again prosecutors walked through the timeline – the missing couple, the tiny house where you couldn’t miss what was going on, and the gruesome discovery.
Thomas sat stoic as his attorneys continued to point out the lack of physical evidence linking him to the crimes. His only reaction was to shake his head in disagreement with the verdict: guilty on 38 counts.
“If I could sit in there and hear guilty over and over and over, I might get a little bit of sleep,” said Gary Christian.
The judge would later give Thomas back to back life sentences, plus 25 years, meaning he would have to live to the age of 147 before he would be eligible for parole.
Cobbins faces life without parole and Davidson was sentenced to death, a sentence which was just upheld in December 2016. Eric Boyd is still in prison on an 18 year sentence.
Vanessa Coleman’s sentence had been knocked down from 53 to 35 years and she only had to serve 30 percent before becoming eligible for parole, with time served and good behavior. In December 2014, she got her parole hearing, but it was denied.
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