KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Trial is under way in Knoxville for the first of four people charged in the kidnapping, rape and killing of a young couple more than two years ago.
As court convened Monday, the judge read each of the 38 counts against 26-year-old Letalvis Cobbins. His attorney, Scott Green, responded by entering pleas.
Green said his client pleaded guilty to five counts of facilitating robbery or theft in the carjacking that set the crimes into motion in 2007. He also pleaded guilty to one count of rape. To the remaining counts, Green responded "not guilty."
Cobbins — of Lebanon, Ky. — is also charged with murder and kidnapping in the killings of 23-year-old Christopher Newsom and his 21-year-old girlfriend Channon Christian.
When Christopher Newsom's bound, shot and burned body was identified the day after he was killed in 2007, authorities warned his mother the sight would be too gruesome for her to see.
"Well, I insisted I had to go there," Mary Newsom recalled last week, her voice cracking.
"I put my arm around the body bag and told him, 'Chris, I will not say goodbye to you because I know someday I will see you again.' That's what I believe. And that's what gets me through."
The mother concedes, though, "It's been a long 2 1/2 years."
Like at least two other defendants, Letalvis "Rome" Cobbins, 26, of Lebanon, Ky., has acknowledged in statements to police some knowledge of the crimes, but not responsibility. His attorneys, Kim Parton and Scott Green, did not return calls for comment.
Cobbins is charged with murder, robbery, rape, kidnapping and theft. He is the half-brother of alleged ringleader Lemaricus "Slim" Davidson, 28, of Knoxville, who is set to be tried next month.
Police have linked both Davidson and Cobbins to the victims through DNA evidence.
The case is racially charged — the defendants are poor and black, the victims were middle-class and white — and it has drawn extensive media coverage locally. Judge Richard Baumgartner obtained a sequestered jury from Nashville, some 150 miles away, to reduce chances of bias.
"The community is probably as aware of this case as any I'd say since going back to the Butcher cases," said John Gill, special counsel to the district attorney and a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted cases stemming from the massive Butcher banking collapse in the 1980s.
"Now because of the Internet, every story is a national story," he noted.
Conservative commentators and Internet bloggers latched onto the Christian-Newsom killings soon after the crimes occurred. They demonized the national media for ignoring what they considered a black-on-white hate crime and contrasted it to the heavily reported white-on-black Duke lacrosse rape case.
But two rallies in Knoxville in 2007 led by white supremacist sympathizers were met with significant anti-protester response and failed to gain traction. No demonstrations are expected now.
Knoxville's black community has had problems with selective enforcement by police, but that is in the past, said Knoxville NAACP president Sheryl Rollins, an attorney. "In no way does the NAACP condone or support anybody — black, white, Chinese, greenies, whatever — that would do what those people (allegedly) did to those children," she said.
Police, prosecutors and the victims' families maintain that Newsom and Christian were not victims of a hate crime, rather victims of a carjacking that went terribly awry.
Newsom and Christian were "in the wrong place at the wrong time," Gill said.
"Originally the plan was to do a carjacking," Eric "E" Boyd of Knoxville claimed Davidson told him, according to an investigator's court affidavit. Boyd has been convicted in federal court of being an accessory after the fact for helping hide Davidson. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The others awaiting trial on murder and related counts are Cobbins' friend George "G" Thomas, 26, and Cobbins' girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 21. Cobbins told police they came with him from Lebanon, Ky., to spend New Year's 2007 with his estranged brother, Davidson.
Christian, a University of Tennessee senior, and Newsom had been dating about two months. Both still lived with their parents.
"I know Chris had fallen pretty hard, and I know she was very happy," said Channon's mother, Deena Christian. "It was just very sad. They were on their way home when it happened, they were coming here."
The couple had been out on a Saturday night date on Jan. 6, 2007, and were leaving a friend's apartment complex sometime after Channon made her last call, to her dad, around 12:30 a.m.
Channon was behind the wheel of her 2005 Toyota 4-Runner and Chris was standing in the open door kissing her when they were jumped at gunpoint in the parking lot, according to police accounts and Cobbins' statement.
They were bound, blindfolded and brought to Davidson's rundown rental home in an industrial inner-city neighborhood less than six miles and a world away.
According to defendants' statements, Newsom wasn't there long before he was taken away, sexually assaulted, shot in the back of the head, set on fire and left beside some railroad tracks a few blocks away.
Over the next 24 hours, Channon was raped in every conceivable way, bleach was sprayed in her mouth to destroy evidence and, Coleman told investigators, Davidson "snapped" her neck. Medical Examiner Darinka Mileusnic-Pochan testified at Boyd's trial, however, that the young woman died of suffocation after she was wrapped in plastic bags and dumped in a closed trash can.
The suspects were arrested within days in Knoxville and Lebanon.
Deena Christian and Mary Newsom know just about all the details by now.
"No, I have no doubts in my mind" the defendants are guilty, Deena Christian said.
"What is my hope? Well, I certainly hope that they are all convicted and all go to the death penalty," Mary Newsom said. "And even that is not enough justice for what they have done."
Tennessee has 89 inmates on Death Row. Six are from Knox County, though the county hasn't sentenced anyone to death since Dennis Suttles in 1997 for fatally stabbing his former girlfriend with a pocketknife.
The last time Knox County brought a jury from Davidson County to decide a murder case was the 1999 trial of Thomas "Zoo Man" Huskey, who claimed a split personality and an alter ego killed four women. The jury failed to reach a verdict after four days of deliberation. A mistrial was declared and the confession later thrown out on appeal.