Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torture Murders of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom

Trials Overturned

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner presided over all four high-profile trials of the Christian-Newsom murder defendants. Promoted to the bench in 1992, Baumgartner had served without incident through most of the next two decades. But court watchers noted the judge could seem dazed and impaired at times. In 2010, Judge Baumgartner caused awkward moments just before the announcement of the jury's decision in the trial of Vanessa Coleman — as he stumbled to correctly read over the verdict form. In January 2011, Baumgartner made a surprise decision to take a medical leave. That news was quickly followed by revelations that the judge was under criminal investigation. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) had found evidence that Baumgartner had obtained prescription pain medication from a felon named Christopher Lee Gibson — whose probation came before Judge Baumgartner. By March 2011, Judge Baumgartner had pled guilty to felony official misconduct. All of his prior cases would be put under strict scrutiny from defense attorneys and prosecutors alike.

Vanessa Coleman.
Vanessa Coleman.
On December 1, 2011, Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood ruled that the trials of all four defendants — Lemaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins, George Thomas, and Vanessa Coleman — were "structurally flawed" by Baumgartner's on-bench intoxication and would have to be done all over again. Citing the TBI probe into Baumgartner's pill-popping, Judge Blackwood said: "He committed a crime every day. That's every day he's sitting on this bench in this robe. There is no other conclusion this court can make but that there was structural error." That the cases will have to be tried again was bad news for prosecutors, but there was a more immediate effect as well: because 3 of the 4 juries had rejected the death penalty already, only Davidson can face the ultimate punishment in his retrial.

 

New Trials on the Horizon

In March 2012, the Tennessee Attorney General's Office stepped in to ask the state Court of Criminal Appeals to hold off on the new trials for the Christian-Newsom defendants. That Appeals Court has not issued an opinion on the issue as yet, but Knox County prosecutors are gearing up for retrials scheduled to begin in June 2012. All four defendants remain behind bars as they await their next day in court. Judge Blackwood announced he will try the cases in Knox County, but select jurors from faraway counties who have not been tainted by the years of publicity. In the meantime, Lemaricus Davidson pled guilty to a robbery that took place in a Knoxville Pizza Hut on January 8, 2007 — just a day after the killings. He received a sentence of eight years for the robbery — that time will not be added to whatever punishment he is meted in his murder/rape retrial. The sentences will run concurrently.

While the families of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom must get set to relive the tragic events again and again in a series of retrials, supporters were able to remember the loss in a positive way. On March 26, 2012, the Chris Newsom Memorial Baseball Tournament was held at Halls Community Park in Knoxville. Proceeds from gate fees and t-shirt sales were put into a scholarship fund in Newsom's name to provide scholarships for graduating seniors of Halls High School, Newsom's alma mater.

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