The sensationally gruesome nature of the Christian-Newsom murders were a fascination throughout Knoxville, Tennessee — but the legal circus that has sprung up after four convictions for the murders won’t let the story rest. Prosecutors have faced off with a new judge over whether there will be set a of new trials — and if so, who will preside over them.
In 2009, Lemaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins, and George Thomas were all convicted of murder for the killings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Davidson was handed down a death sentence; the other two would serve the rest of their life behind bars. The next year, Cobbins’ girlfriend Vaness Coleman was convicted of lesser charges in connection with the killings and was given a 53-year prison sentence. The cases seemed closed; justice had been served.
But in March 2011, Judge Richard Baumgartner, who presided over all four trials, plead guilty to an official misconduct charge that threw the validity of the trials in doubt. Baumgartner admitted to a pill addiction, and that he had been soliciting the drugs from a parolee under Baumgartner’s judicial supervision — Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood was appointed to look into the matter.
Blackwood raised hackles on December 1, 2011 when he granted defense motions for new trials of the Christian-Newsom accomplices. Prosecutors appealed the decision up to the State’s highest court, while defense attorneys fought to keep the new trial ruling alive. Tennessee’s Supreme Court decided that Judge Blackwood’s decision relied on faulty legal reasoning — and asked him to reconsider. At that time, Knox County District Attorney’s office filed a motion asking Blackwood to recuse himself because there was a distinct appearance that Blackwood’s mind was made up to grant new trials even though Baumgartner’s misconduct did not cause any error or bias in the original Christian-Newsom court cases.
So this month, Special Judge Blackwood reaffirmed his order (seen below) for a new trial under slightly different grounds — that Judge Baumgartner’s impairment negatively impacted his ability to serve as “the 13th juror” as specified by Tennessee law. Blackwood convened a contentious hearing in which he took on the prosecutors that sought to have him removed from the case: “I am here by the appointment of the Supreme Court and until the Supreme Court tells me otherwise, I’m not leaving.” Blackwood did not waver in his decisions, but lamented that he had created such controversy: “Somebody has to do this terrible, distasteful job… if you too a poll of who was the most hated person in Knox County, me and Baumgartner would be neck and neck.”
Lemaricus Davidson’s new trial was scheduled to begin this month, but will likely be postponed by further prosecution appeals. There is no indication yet as to when that trial (or any of the others) will ultimately see the inside of a courtroom.