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Knoxville Horror Prosecutions Spinning Out of Control?
Knoxville County (TN) Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner had better get a grip. This jurist, who since early 2007 has been presiding over all four state murder trials in the Knoxville Horror (KH) case—the January 7, 2007 carjacking-kidnapping-gang-rape-torture-murders by black criminals of white couple Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom—is in danger of losing control of his courtroom. After permitting dithering and brinksmanship on the part of prosecution and defense to force him to postpone the respective cases for a year, Baumgartner found himself forced to replace a negligent defender in the first scheduled case, and hence postpone it (and thus all the others) yet another six months. Meanwhile, the defense attempt to sandbag another KH trial with specious constitutional objections has gained a sympathetic ear from Judge Baumgartner.
Each of the four black defendants—Letalvis Cobbins, Cobbins' girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, George Thomas and Cobbins' half-brother, Lemaricus Davidson—is being tried separately in consecutive trials. All but Coleman have court-appointed, private attorneys; Coleman secured private counsel. Because each is on trial for his life, Rule 13 of the Tennessee Supreme Court provides that each must have two death penalty-certified defense lawyers.
That rule has proven the greatest boon to Tennessee private criminal bar since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright forced the states to provide counsel to indigent defendants in all felony cases. At $75-100 per hour per attorney for top private defenders, plus expert, prosecution, document and court costs, by my reckoning the case has already cost humble Knox County over $2 million, before any trial has even begun.
Letalvis Cobbins' case comes first. On November 7, Judge Baumgartner removed co-counsel, Bruce Poston, due to Poston's neglect of Cobbins' defense (particularly Poston's failure to meet the deadline for filing a motion to suppress Cobbins' statement to police); scheduled Poston, whom he said he considers a friend, for a contempt hearing; and replaced him as Cobbins' co-counsel with local attorney Scott Green. (Kim Parton has served from the start as Cobbins' lead defense counsel.)
"… the judge noted that, like the late [James] Brown, Poston is considered the hardest-working man in the defense bar when it comes to criminal trials but doesn't devote much time to the more mundane work of filing motions and appeals." [Attorney accused of failing to devote time to defense, by Jamie Satterfield, Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 8, 2008.]
On February 25, Judge Baumgartner ruled that Cobbins' statement is admissible. In Cobbins' statement, he placed himself at the scene of the crime, but denied having committed any crimes, which he blamed on his half-brother, Lemaricus Davidson. So much for family loyalty.
In the event of a conviction, Cobbins could appeal with a new lawyer, arguing that due to Poston's failure he received ineffective assistance of counsel, which could potentially be grounds for reversal.
Green's need to familiarize himself with Cobbins' case necessitated yet another postponement of the trial. Green soon sought to be removed from the case, and in February "filed a motion asking for a complete media blackout on pre-trial hearings, or to be removed from the case," citing death threats against him and his family on WBIR's message board.
In the meantime, Cobbins has also been charged with misdemeanor assault for an alleged attack on Knox County Sheriff's Office jailer Bryan Hackett on February 2.
In the second scheduled trial, "defense attorneys for Vanessa Coleman seek to suppress statements [Coleman] made to police when she was arrested in Kentucky in January 2007," which incriminated herself, Davidson, Thomas and Cobbins.
Prosecutors earlier offered Coleman a plea bargain of a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, in exchange for a guilty plea and her thorough, "truthful" testimony at her co-defendants' trials; she rejected the offer. Prosecutors have offered no plea bargains to Coleman's co-defendants.
Lemaricus Davidson's trial is due third. His attorneys have largely kept their own counsel.
That leaves George Thomas. His attorneys, Thomas Dillard and co-counsel, Stephen Ross Johnson, last May petitioned the court "to dismiss the request for the death penalty," asserting that it was racially biased; their petition was apparently rejected.
In late February, Dillard petitioned Judge Baumgartner to force two Knoxville media outlets to censor their respective Websites. Dillard is demanding that the Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper and NBC affiliate WBIR ensure that each poster provides his real name and address, and review each post prior to publishing it, to ensure that it is not "inflammatory," prejudicial, or otherwise liable to taint the jury pool.
If Baumgartner rules in Thomas' favor, he will be imposing state censorship of the sort known as "prior restraint." While the News-Sentinel and WBIR are private companies, since the limitations on their respective message boards would be imposed by the state, said limitations would entail state censorship.
In my opinion, Dillard's petition is without merit, based on four factors:
1. That ship has sailed. The most prejudicial statements imaginable were posted to Internet message boards in early 2007, shortly following the murders. Baseless rumors asserted that the killers had sexually mutilated the presumably still living victims, lopping off Christopher Newsom's penis, and one of Channon Christian's breasts. In the course of researching my first article on the case, for American Renaissance, I was able to track these rumors back to white supremacist/neo-Nazi/whatever Internet broadcaster, Hal Turner. The facts of the crime, however, were so gruesome that the phony rumors were unnecessary. And if anyone was guilty of promoting an atmosphere conducive to wild rumor-mongering, it was the Knoxville PD, which suppressed most of the facts of the case. I find it hard to believe that over two years later, new postings could change Knoxvillians' attitudes towards the crime;
2. The focus on local Knoxville media outlets bespeaks of a pre-Internet mentality. But the Internet is everywhere. True and false claims alike about the case, posted by people from around the world, are available at scores, if not hundreds of blogs and Web sites;
3. Internet prejudice has cut both ways. Supporters of the defendants have made the baseless assertion that Christian was "cruising" in a bad part of town, or looking to buy drugs, as if such claims would justify the crimes committed against her and Newsom, even if they were true; and
4. No can do. Both the First Amendment and U.S. Code, Title 47, Section 230 forbid the suggested censorship. The First Amendment forbids prior restraint, and Section 230 holds that media outlets that have message boards or the like are "common carriers"—specifically, "interactive computer services"—just like Internet service providers such as AOL, and are not "publishers." Thus, they are not liable for false or libelous statements made by people using their services. It is precisely the Section 230 loophole that has permitted Wikipedia/The Pretend Encyclopedia to function as a libel factory.
Dillard's claims are specious; he is likely laying the groundwork to later argue reversible error on appeal, should his client be convicted. Should Judge Baumgartner yield to such entreaties, he will find himself on a path to folly.
If Baumgartner is worried about the jury being prejudicially influenced, he could sequester it and prevent it from having any Internet access. However, sequestered jurors have the right to conjugal visits. During previous high profile trials, visiting spouses were suspected of passing along prejudicial information. The best path is to reject Dillard's arguments, and just get on with the trials. Judge Baumgartner has not yet said when he will rule on the matter. (Thanks to reader JC, for alerting me about this matter.)
Procedurally speaking, the strongest defense motion yet was made on March 13 by one of Lemaricus Davidson's lawyers, Douglas Trant. He argued that the January 9, 2007 search of the since-demolished house at 2316 Chipman Street, where the gang-rapes and torture of the victims and Christian's murder had been committed, was illegal—because the lead case investigator had signed the second page of the search warrant, but not the first.
"'That this search warrant is not valid, I would submit for that reason the burden should then shift to the state,' Davidson's attorney Douglas Trant said.
"Defense attorneys for Davidson say because Knoxville Police Officer Todd Childress did not sign the first page of a search warrant, then the Court should not allow the search warrant or evidence discovered by the search.
"The signature line is cut off. Childress said he did not realize there was supposed to be a signature line on the first page.
"The second page is signed by Officer Childress and Judge Tony Stansbury." [Update: Judge to decide if search in the Christian and Newsom murders was legal by Yvette Martinez, WBIR, March 14, 2009.]
To put this amazing claim in perspective, remember police had previously found a bank envelope with Lemaricus Davidson's fingerprint on it inside of Channon Christian's dumped SUV, knew Davidson's address, and he was already wanted for an unrelated misdemeanor.
Since most of the incriminating evidence, including Channon Christian's corpse, was found at the house on Chipman Street, Davidson's dream outcome would be the suppression of all such evidence. Would prosecutors then have to proceed as if Channon Christian's body had never been found, and not show the jury the photographs of her wounds? And since the suspects' crucial interrogation statements, which Judge Baumgartner has permitted into the record, were all taken by law enforcement based on what the latter had learned at the house on Chipman Street, would the falling dominoes knock them down, as well?
Many Northerners assume that the Volunteer State is backwards. But Tennessee is actually one of the most sophisticated, progressive states in the Union, when it comes to encouraging the manipulation of the criminal justice system. Filing defense motions during a capital trial in Tennessee is like throwing spaghetti against a wall. The more motions you throw, the more likely that one will stick—on review, if not during the trial itself.
One study found that from 1977-1995, Tennessee Courts of Appeals reversed 32 out of the 109 capital cases it reviewed on direct appeal "for errors made during the trials."[PDF ] According to a 1999 Tennessee Supreme Court finding (in State v. Ferguson), the state constitution's due process protections are stronger than those contained in the U.S. Constitution Former Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers (1999-2006) once observed that the state's appellate death penalty process is "one of the most lengthy criminal appeals processes in the United States."
Assuming Judge Baumgartner doesn't let defense counsel walk all over him, I expect Davidson, Cobbins, and Thomas all to be convicted on some of the 46 felony charges against each.
At press time the case against Davidson is airtight—with DNA evidence tying him to Christian, and statements by all four co-defendants claiming he carried out one murder, and at minimum, ordered the other murder. Thus I give Davidson a 90 percent chance of being sentenced to death. But in the world of diversity, no capital case sentence of a black or Hispanic defendant is a foregone conclusion.
DNA evidence ties Cobbins to Christian, but as no co-defendant statements claim he carried out either killing, I give him a 50 percent chance of getting a death sentence.
No DNA evidence ties Thomas to Christian, but co-defendant statements claim he admitted to killing Newsom. Thus, I also give him a 50 percent chance of getting the death penalty.
Considering that no DNA evidence ties Coleman to either victim, no co-defendant statement has her killing either victim, her self-presentation in her police statements as a hapless, terrified prisoner of the men (her transparent lies and self-contradictions notwithstanding), and the preferential treatment black females routinely enjoy in matters of the law, I give Coleman zero chance of being sentenced to death. She might even skate on all 40 felony counts against her.
Presently, the trials are slated to begin on July 6 (Cobbins); August 10 (Coleman); September 21 (Davidson); and December 2 (Thomas), respectively.
Eric Boyd was convicted last April 16 in a federal trial, and sentenced to 18 years in prison, as an accessory after the fact to carjacking. Boyd will appeal his conviction; I have argued that the mess from his trial may be spilling over for some time to come.
With the exception of Coleman, the defendants are certainly getting the taxpayers' money's worth, as are the defense attorneys.
But are the taxpayers?
In the dock for this racial atrocity we have men whose days, when they are not in prison, are spent hurtling from one violent crime against hardworking citizens to another, buying food and drugs with the proceeds from those crimes, having sex (whether through consent or rape), falling asleep, and starting a new series of crimes the next day; and a drifter of a woman who is content to go along for the ride.
A sane, decent, prudent society seeks to limit both the number of such people, and the damage they can do.
Nicholas Stix [email him] lives in New York City, which he views from the perspective of its public transport system, experienced in his career as an educator. His weekly column appears at Men's News Daily and many other Web sites. He has also written for Middle American News, the New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Chronicles, Ideas on Liberty and the Weekly Standard. He maintains two blogs: A Different Drummer and Nicholas Stix, Uncensored.