The latest chapter in the story that began with the horrific torture, rape and murder of young Knoxville couple Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom began this week as testimony in the retrial of alleged killer George Thomas got underway.
In 2009, Thomas was convicted on 38 counts including murder, aggravated rape and an assortment of robbery and kidnapping charges related to the carjacking that left Channon Christian dead in a garbage container and Newsom shot and burned near the railroad tracks. That original jury opted to spare Thomas the death penalty but keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.
That conviction and those of his alleged co-consipirators Lemaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins, and Vanessa Coleman were jeopardized by the revelation that trial Judge Richard Baumgartner had been addicted to prescription painkillers and may have been inebriated at times during the original trials. Thomas has plead not guilty to the charges against him.
On Monday, opening statements began with a fiery diatribe against Thomas by prosecutor TaKisha Fitzgerald, who rehashed the heinous list of acts suffered by Christian and Newsom at the hands of the perpetrators. She even quoted from an interview the defendant gave to authorities shortly after he was captured. When a detective suggested he should have done something to help stop the torture of Channon Christian, Thomas replied “[expletive] that girl. She didn’t mean anything to me.”
While the prosecution takes the position that Thomas’ choice not to help the victims is proof he was a co-conspirator, the defense has taken the opposite tack. Lead defense counsel Stephen Johnson told the jury that Thomas was too scared of Lemaricus Davidson to try to stop what was going on in the house. Instead, Thomas sat on the couch smoking marijuana, not taking an active role in the crimes taking place around him.
According to Johnson, “Thomas wanted no part of this at all. He didn’t rape, kidnap or murder anyone.” Backing up the defense case is the lack of DNA evidence linking Thomas to the multiple rapes of both victims.
And Johnson used a snippet of the same police interview to bolster the defense case. In another part of the statement, Thomas informed detectives that he told Letalvis Cobbins to tell ringleader Davidson to “chill” when Thomas learned Davidson planned to steal a car back in January 2007. It was that carjacking that resulted in the painful deaths of Christian and Newsom.
The first set of witnesses called to the stand have established the timeline of the gruesome case: the carjacking, the discovery of the car and subsequent discovery of the bodies, and the ultimate capture of the suspects. For prosecutors, this is the 6th time they’ve had to lay out these same facts in a courtroom.
With the facts established, both sides will use the coming weeks of testimony to persuade jurors of Thomas’ complicity in the crimes. Was he a participant or a bystander too scared to intervene?
Due to the massive media coverage the story has received, the 16-person jury panel was bussed in from Davidson County. It includes a 50/50 mix of men and women, including five black women.
In attendance at trial are both victims’ families, who have attended every hearing and every day of trial since the murders occurred. Wednesday’s testimony marked the families’ 300th day in court thus far.
Both families expressed confidence this jury will reach the same conclusions found back in 2009. “They have the same evidence they had before, and he got life without parole, why should they not get the same this trial?” said Christopher Newsom’s father Hugh.
Channon Christian’s father Gary downplayed Thomas’ defense with reporters: “You can’t sit in that house for three days with the torture going on and not be responsible. You can’t even do that and be human being.”