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The Tragedy on Chipman Street: The murders of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom

3:01 PM, Nov 20, 2009   |    comments
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Reported by Yvette Martinez
Produced by Executive Producer Tonja Burk
Editing by Photographers J.J. Jones, Tim Dale, and Steve Coy

Two Knox County families are bonded by tragedy after their children were carjacked, raped, and killed in 2007.

So far, two people have been convicted in their deaths.

But the journey to justice is far from over.

In a 10 News special report, Yvette Martinez brings you a closer look at the case that has captivated the community.

Some of families' questions still unanswered

 

It's been nearly three years since the community heard about a body found near the railroad tracks and a missing UT student.

Five defendants were ultimately charged in connection with the deaths of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom.

But not all the defendants have been tried, and not all the unanswered questions have been put to rest about the weekend the young couple disappeared.

"We just hope and pray that the person who committed this crime is found and removed from the streets before they commit another crime," father Hugh Newsom said, after learning of his son Chris's death.

On January 6, 2007, investigators belive 21-year-old Channon Christian and 23-year-old Chris Newsom were in the parking lot at the Washington Ridge Apartments when they were carjacked, around 10:30 that night.

Then at 12:33 a.m. on January 7, Gary Christian got a call from his daughter, saying she would be home around 3.

"I said, 'Alright. Be careful, and I love you.' And that's the last thing she said to me, was she loved me," father Gary Christian said.

Investigators believe the couple was taken against their will to the Chipman Street house around midnight on January 7. And officers say Christian's last phone call to her father was made from that area.

Investigators believe Newsom was taken to another location, was raped, then shot and killed, around 1:45 a.m. That's when a Chipman Street neighbor reports hearing three shots fired.

Knox County Medical Examiner Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan has testified now three times to the brutal rapes the couple endured before they were killed.

"This is not just a rape. This is a blunt trauma where an object comes in contact and severely damages the tissue. The depth of the injury was so grave, there's no way just a regular rape could inflict this," Polchan testified at defendant Lemaricus Davidson's trial.

On Sunday, January 7, a train engineer discovered Newsom's body. Newsom was tied up, shot three times execution style, and lit on fire with gasoline.

Knoxville Police Sergeant Tim Snoderly is a friend of the Newsom family. He identified Newsom's body and notified his parents.

"Yes, actually knowing some of the victims does make it a little--you can't help but make it a little personal, if you know some of them, but then you put that aside, and you get down to business as usual," Snoderly said.

Using cell phone records, the couple's friends and family used Christian's last phone call to find her SUV on Chipman Street early Monday morning on January 8.

Officers also found a thumbprint that would lead them to Lemaricus Davidson and his house at 2316 Chipman Street.

On Tuesday, January 9, 2007, Christian's body was found stuffed in a trash can in the kitchen of that house.

As investigators continued to piece together what happened to the couple, they were looking for the suspects.

"They need to find them," neighbor Mary Gregory said. "My heart goes out to those families. I can't imagine. It's a sad situation."

In Lebanon, Kentucky, federal, state, and local officers took Letalvis Cobbins, George Thomas, and Vanessa Coleman into custody on January 11.

"If the allegations are correct, these people are dangerous, and we had to do what we could to get them off the street before they hurt someone else," Chief Deputy US Marshal for western Kentucky Rich Knighten said.

That same day, Knoxville Police closed in on Davidson at a vacant house at 1800 Reynolds Street.

Eric Boyd was also taken into custody and later charged as an accessory after the fact for helping Davidson hide from police.

By the end of January, Davidson, Cobbins, Coleman, and Thomas were all charged with kidnapping, raping, and killing the couple.

In April 2008, Boyd was convicted for helping Davidson and for knowing about the carjacking and not telling police. He was later sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

However, the prosecution and the victims' families want to see Boyd go to trial for Christian's and Newsom's murders.

"The state is still interested in prosecuting Eric Boyd, if enough evidence can be developed on that," said Assistant District Attorney Leland Price. "So the case is still open."

"I wished that my daughter could stand here and talk to you all and tell you waht happened and who did what, but she can't, and Chris can't. It's about them, and it's about the ones that did it to them," Gary Christian said after a hearing on DNA.

Boyd is imprisoned at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution in Raleigh, West Virginia.

Brothers convicted

 

Two brothers from Memphis are now convicted killers. Letalvis Cobbins, 26, is behind bars for life at West Tennessee State Penitentiary. He has no chance for parole.

Lemaricus Davidson, 28, is on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.

Their trials were closely watched by a horrified community.

"She's laying on her back. Her hands are tied, still tied like this, and tied to a duffle bag full of free weights and books and stuff. Her ankles are tied..." Letalvis Cobbins testified in his trial. He took the stand against his defense attorneys' advice.

In August, Cobbins told a jury that his brother Lemaricus Davidson brought Channon Christian to Davidson's house and held her against her will.

Cobbins admitted taking advantage of her fear.

"She said, 'Please, can you just convice him to let me go?' I said, 'I'll try.' She said, 'I'll do anything, just please just let me go,' she even offered oral sex," Cobbins testified.

Then Cobbins described watching Davidson dispose of Christian.

"As we are all standing there, he puts his hand around, he puts his arm around the girl's neck and tries to kill her, tries to choke her. He lets her go, and she falls," Cobbins testified.

The defendant told the jury he lied several times, and he deserved to be punished for what he did to Christian.

"And I'm sorry, to the families. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he testified.

"When he goes to Hell, he can take his apology with him. That's what I think about his apology," Gary Christian said outside the courtroom.

TBI DNA serologist Jennifer Milsaps testified in both Cobbins' and Davidson's trials.

She told the court samples of Cobbins' and Davidson's DNA were found on Christian's body and clothes.

A KPD firearms examiner said Davidson's gun was similar to the one used to fire the fatal shots into Newsom's body.

Fingerprints experts also found Davidson's prints in Christian's SUV, on her pictures, on her Blockbuster video card, on her paystub, and on three of the trash bags used to wrap her body.

After all the evidence was presented to the juries in both cases, the verdicts were read.

Cobbins was agitated and nodded in disagreement as he was found guilty of all counts of rape of Christian.

In total, Cobbins was found guilty on 33 charges, including the premeditated first degree murder of Christian.

Cobbins' attorneys put six of his relatives on the stand to beg for his life.

"You might look at my cousin and see a criminal, but when I look at him, I see fun-loving, friendly. I don't see that, and I'm asking you to please have mercy on him," cousin Theresa Hullum testified.

"I'm so sorry to the family that this happened. I cannot imagine their pain. And you may look at me and hate me for what happened, but I love my brother," older sister Misha Davidson testified.

It took nine days for the Cobbins trial and sentencing. In the end, the Nashville jury gave him life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In October, Davidson was found guilty of 38 charges, including the premeditated murders of both Christian and Newsom.

"We the jury find the defendant Lemaricus Devall Davidson guilty of the first degree premeditated murder of Hugh Christopher Newsom," the jury foreman read in court.

Davidson's jury heard from only one of Davidson's biological sisters.

It was his foster family who begged for mercy.

"He's my son. I love him. He had such potential. He had a dynamic personality. He was a throw-away child," foster mother Alice Rhey said.

But the jury also heard from the Christian and NEwsom families.

"I said, 'I love you, sis,' and she said, 'I love you, Chaser.' Those were the last words she ever said to me. That was the last time I ever saw my baby sister, my inspiration, and my best friend," brother Chase Christian said.

"I specifically remember him walking up to me that day and putting his arm around me before he left to meet friends. This was the last time I saw my brother," Newsom's sister Andrew Bowers said.

"I know my daughter was scared to death, but I know if she could have, she would have fought back," mother Deena Christian said.

The victim's families talked about the lives cut short during the kidnapping, robbery, rapes, and murders.

"I will never see his wedding day or hold his babies," mother Mary Newsom said. "I can't even imagine how scared that kid must have been."

Some members of the jury cried during the emotional stories of the victims' lives.

And jurors were still shaken when the foreman announced Davidson would be put to death.

After 11 days, the trial was over.

Davidson remained unemotional as Judge Richard Baumgartner announced the first death penalty to be delivered in his courtroom in 17 years.

"May you find peace with your maker," Baumgartner said.

Long years of appeals lie ahead in both cases. There are two more defendants still to be tried.

New media and the trials

 

As these crimes were revealed to the community, several new media options opened up to the community. Not only could people get the latest information, but the online community could express their feelings on the case.

Traditional media outlets found a new platform in Twitter--providing short bursts of up-to-the-minute information from within the courtroom.

And live internet streaming of the trials--which occurred during the day, when many community members wouldn't be near a television--provided unusually high access to the court and its proceedings.

Wbir.com launched comments shortly before the Christian and Newsom murders. Initially, the comment option linked to many stories about the murders were suspended--due to high emotions, intense feelings, and frequent violations of the terms of service.

In recent months, the online community has learned to lean on each other to answer legal questions and to try to make sense of the senseless crimes.

The running public commentary has not been without complications. Attorneys for the defendants in the case have voiced concerns in filings and in court about the massive attention surrounding the trials.

"I have a wife, I have children. If they are concerned, it affects my ability to represent Mr. Cobbins. I will not sit by and let that happen," Cobbins defense attorney Scott Green said.

Green asked Judge Baumgartner to restrict online comments posted on news websites, saying he'd been threatened personally. Green asked for the comments to be restricted or for him to be removed from the case.

George Thomas' attorneys joined that battle, saying the nation's founding fathers did not know freedom of speech would be used by anonymous bloggers on the web.

But anonymity came long before blogs.

"Two hundred years ago your honor, it was anonymity and anonymous pamphlets that made this nation, that led to the revolution, that led to the Constitution we're standing here to protect today," WBIR attorney Tom McAdams said, arguing against the motion.

Baumgartner agreed, saying he had no power to restrict online comments.

Attorneys for Lemaricus Davidson, Doug Trant and David Eldridge, have said they've received anonymous letters threatening them and their families. The FBI is investigating.

What's next: Two big questions

 

Two big questions linger in the upcoming trials. The first centers on defendant George Thomas and how prosecutors will craft their case against him.

A Chattanooga jury has been seated to try Thomas. That's expected to start December 1.

Unlike with the Cobbins and Davidson trials, there's no forensic evidence tying Thomas to the rapes and murders of Christian and Newsom. That will present a hurdle for prosecutors.

The other big question is co-defendant Vanessa Coleman's status.

The Court of Criminal Appeals is still considering Coleman's request for immunity from prosecution.

Coleman testified before a federal grand jury in January 2007. She hadn't been offered immunity, but federal prosecutors' notes suggest they were prepared to offer it.

Her testimony helped lead to federal indictments for Davidson, Cobbins, and Thomas.

But ultimately, those federal indictments were dropped in favor of state charges against the trio, and Coleman, too.

Coleman's attorneys argue that prosecuting Coleman now would be illegal. The issue is before the Court of Criminal Appeals.

More to watch for

 

The half-hour special report has been posted to wbir.com in three segments. Within them, you'll find additional content beyond the words written here.

Hallerin Hilton Hill talks about the community's feelings as expressed through his talk show on WNOX. You'll find that at the beginning of Part II.

Defense attorney Scott Green expressed in court and filings his reluctance to represent Cobbins, asking to withdraw from the case on more than one occasion. Now that the trial's over, you can hear from Green at the end of Part II.

Local attorney Don Bosch often represents criminal defendants in Knox County courts but is not connected to this case professionally. He occasionally provides on-air legal analysis for 10 News. At the beginning of Part III, he weighs in with a lawyer's perspective on the two big questions hanging over the upcoming trials of George Thomas and Vanessa Coleman.

Remembering Channon and Chris

 

The families of Chris Newsom and Channon Christian don't want East Tennessee to forget their children.

Scholarships in the names of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom have been set up, using the sports they loved to send students to college.

Newsom spent most of his life playing baseball. In 2008, the Halls community hosted the first Chris Newsom Memorial Baseball Tournament.

"That's the first time I've thrown a baseball in years. I should have practiced a little more this afternoon. It brought back a tremendous amount of memories, and they were good memories," father Hugh Newsom said that day.

For generations, little leaguers and up-and-coming stars will learn and remember Chris Newsom's name.

"It makes you think about living today," Halls baseball Coach Doug Polston said. "What's going to happen tomorrow? It's just a tragedy it happened such a good young man."

"The tournament was designed to remember Chris the way he lived, not the way he died," said Todd Cook of the Halls Community Park Board.

In 2008, the Rick McGill's Golf Tournament became the Channon Gail Christian Golf Tournament. It had been an event the Farragut High student looked forward to every year.

"It was our way of being able to do something of a positive nature on her behalf that Gary and Deena and Chris could see grow and prosper down the years," said family friend Michael Bryant. "When all of us aren't here to do it, it will still be here, so nobody will forget Channon as long as there's a tournament."

"It was all just about her and my family," Gary Christian said, tears flowing.

In 2009, the scholarship in Christian's name reached more than $54,000, keeping it endowed indefinitely.

Efforts to help the families

 

Memorial t-shirts paying tribute to the couple have been created to raise money for the victims' families.  They are available at www.channonandchris.com.

Another benefit to raise money for the families has been scheduled at the Turkey Creek Nixon's Deli on Friday November 27th.

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