Christopher Newsom, Channon Christian, date unknown.
GUEST ENTRY FROM DAVID IN TENNESSEE!
The Christian-Newsom Torture Murder Case: Attending Vanessa Coleman's Retrial
by David In Tennessee
On Monday, November 12, I drove 250 miles to Knoxville, Tennessee to attend the retrial of Vanessa Coleman for the facilitation of the rape and murder of Channon Christian. In her initial trial, Coleman was acquitted of all charges in the murder of Christian's boyfriend, Christopher Newsom. Coleman was convicted of facilitation only in the rape and murder of Channon Christian. She now faces 17 charges, including facilitation of rape and murder as well as robbery.
There was a rain moving from East to West across Tennessee and it followed me for the entire trip. I checked into a Holiday Inn for four days.
On Tuesday morning, after parking in a garage, I had a five minute walk to the courthouse. At the entrance, you have to empty your pockets for inspection. You also have to remove your belt, something new since I was last in the Knox County Courthouse a year ago. As at the first trial, you have to empty your pockets and be scanned every time you go in the courtroom. This means you go through this five or six times in a day.
I see Hugh Newsom, Chris' father, with whom I've spoken before. I tell him I'm covering the trial for a Los Angeles-based blog and was asked to do so by the lady who runs it.
Hugh blames the "idiot judge" for the original verdicts being overturned. Former Judge Richard Baumgartner was forced to resign the bench after it was learned he was buying drugs from a probationer in his own court, with whom he was also having an affair. Three of the verdicts are still in limbo while Judge Walter Kurtz decides whether to order retrials. The retrial of the fourth defendant, Vanessa Coleman, was not contested. Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who was replaced by Kurtz a few months ago, is still presiding over Coleman's trial. I know, it's confusing but this is what we have.
Judge Blackwood is small and thin. I had trouble hearing him when he sustained or overruled an objection. Blackwood is less of a courtroom presence than Baumgartner was. There are sidebars seemingly after every objection. I could always hear Baumgartner clearly when he spoke. Not so for Blackwood.
The lead prosecutor, Takisha Fitzgerald, speaks clearly with perfect enunciation. Her co-prosecutor, Leland Price, has an air of calm efficiency. Ted Lavitt, the lead defense attorney, is very loud. Three young lawyers in his firm write out questions and give them to him during a cross examination. Lavit's co-counsel, Russell Greene, is a Knoxville attorney appointed to the case. He doesn't handle many witnesses. Lavit is a Kentucky attorney hired by Coleman's parents and does almost all of the trial work.
During his opening statement, Lavit mentioned Daphne Sutton and referred to her as "a white girl." Lavit is the only person to inject race into the trial. Lavitt called the other three defendants the "killers" throughout. Yes, she was there. No question she "suffered." Held against her will. Feared for her safety. Just 18 years old. Didn't "know who Cobbins was."
Well, Cobbins was Coleman's boyfriend.
At the lunch counter on Tuesday, I was standing beside the Newsoms. Xavier Jenkins, a key prosecution witness, came by and hugged Chris Newsom's sister, his mother, and shook hands with Hugh.
After lunch, Jenkins took the stand. At the time of the murders, he worked at Waste Management, next to the Chipman Street house. Jenkins testified to seeing four black males in Channon Christian's Toyota 4Runner as it drove by. "How do you know they were all black?" Lavit asked on cross-examination. "As a black man myself, I can tell," Jenkins answered. Lavit kept trying but Jenkins wouldn't budge and calmly explained why he was certain there were four black males in the vehicle. They gave him a mean look and Jenkins gave them one back. In my opinion, Lavit not only looked foolish, but highlighted Jenkins' testimony.
When Xavier Jenkins left the stand, both victims' fathers nodded their thanks. This indicated Vanessa Coleman was alone with Channon Christian.
Several times I saw black people come up to the Christians or Newsoms and express their sympathy.
In his opening statement and cross examinations, Lavit tries to make Coleman out to be a "victim" who was being held against her will by her boyfriend, Letalvis Cobbins. HERE is my account of Cobbins' from her initial trial and an outline of the case as it looked in 2009. At her first trial in 2010, Lavit said Coleman would testify, but she did not. This time he makes no such promise.
There was more about Chris Newsom's murder than expected. Judge Blackwood ruled his kidnapping and murder could be mentioned because it led to Channon's rape and murder, which Coleman is on trial for facilitating. Chris's ball cap and burned drivers license were found in a garbage bag in the Chipman house. None of the defendants admitted to seeing him.
At a break, I introduced myself to Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Jamie Satterfield, with whom I've exchanged emails. She said, "Nice to meet you."
Vanessa Coleman sometimes smiles to her parents, who are in the courtroom. Most of the time, Coleman smirks.
The courtroom would easily hold over a hundred people. There were usually less than 40 over the three days I was there. Many were courthouse employees. The Christians and Newsoms and their friends made up around 16 people most of the time.
Before court on Wednesday, I talked to a woman who is a friend of the Christians. I told her I was there to write about the trial for a Los Angeles-based blog called Trials and Tribulations. The next day I gave her the web address for T&T.
There are sidebars again and again. Chris' mother Mary testified that it was her son's cap found in a garbage bag. Deena Christian identified Channon's clothes found in the Chipman house and her possessions later found in Vanessa Coleman's purse. Deena stood directly in front of the jury and told something about each item.
Later that day, Daphne Sutton testified, pretty much a rerun of the first trial. While waiting to testify, witnesses sit on a bench outside the courtroom. When I walked by, Daphne looked at me with an insolent expression. She looked like a poor relation of the Kardashian sisters. Daphne Sutton was Lemaricus Davidson's girlfriend who left the Chipman street house after being beaten by Davidson, the ringleader. Sutton came back to the house while Channon was still being held. She saw Davidson, Cobbins, and George Thomas, but not Coleman, who she knew. Coleman, the prosecution says, was keeping Channon under guard out of sight.
Coleman claimed to be taking a shower when Sutton came back, but could "hear what was being said."
On Thursday, Coleman's federal grand jury testimony was read. A female lawyer from Lavit's firm read Coleman's answers to the questions read by prosecutor Leland Price. Coleman had lied to investigators at first, claiming to have gone back to Kentucky with George Thomas' girlfriend, Stacey Lawson. With each interview, Coleman told a little more. She finally claimed to have been held against her will and "unable to contact the police."
At no time in her grand jury testimony or police interviews, did Coleman express regret over what happened to the victims. She didn't even pretend when it would have been in her interest to do so. Coleman was always unemotional.
In the first trial, the medical examiner, Doctor Darius Mileusnic-Polchan, was the last prosecution witness. This time she takes the stand after the reading of Coleman's grand jury testimony. A good idea in my opinion.
Before the medical examiner testified, there was a delay of over an hour. The defense argues against any photos of Christopher Newsom being shown. Eventually two photos of Chris were allowed.
A friend of the victims' families brought a box of tissues and passed them out. Coleman had her usual smirk before Dr. Mileusnic-Polchan's testimony.
We have seen the ME testify on the live stream without seeing the photos. We have also read about the violence inflicted on Channon and Chris. At a break beforehand, I tried to get myself ready. I have written about what was inflicted on the victims. Now I will see it.
The first photo was of Chris Newsom's burned body laying beside the railroad tracks. His body was blackened from about the knees up with the face unrecognizable. There was a blindfold over his eyes which somewhat preserved them. A police officer who was a friend of the Newsoms could recognize Chris "because of his eyes."
The other photo was of Chris Newsom's bare feet which still were tied by a belt and ligature.
Now came Dr. Mileusnic-Polchan's (ME) presentation concerning the rape and murder of Channon Christian. Her body was not removed from the garbage can until at the medical examiner's office. The can was covered by a tarpaulin while being hauled there. Her face had been covered by a white plastic bag and the body enclosed in several black plastic bags.
Channon Christian was a beautiful 21-year old woman who stood five feet, eight inches and weighed 122 punds.
On the screen appeared a photo of Channon's body laying on a gurney. Her body is still contorted in the position it was in after being "crammed" into the trash can. She was naked from the waist down.
The mouth was open. The eyes were half-closed. Her face was frozen in horror. She had died of asphyxiation after hours of agony. The left arm was extended upward from the elbow.
This photo hit me like a punch.
The next photo showed abrasion inside of the lips. Her gum had been knocked loose from the teeth. A photo of her face was next.
Then came a photo of her genitals. It revealed tremendous trauma. She had been kicked and beaten repeatedly in the vagina. During Davidson's trial, a beginning female deputy DA fainted at this photo.
The next photo was of the anus with still more heavy bruising. It looked like she had been clubbed. She had been raped anally, vaginally, and sodomized.
The Christian family friend left the courtroom in tears. The others stayed. They have seen the autopsy photos several times. Deena, Channon's mother looked down.
The lid of each eye was pulled back so the eyes could be photographed. I could not look.
The direct examination of the ME took just under an hour. At this point, I left the courtroom and went back to the Holiday Inn. I had intended to come to the Friday session but instead drove home the next day.
To summarize, Chris Newsom was dragged by a dog leash around his neck to a railroad track. He was naked from the waist down and his hands were tied behind his back. Chris' face was wrapped in a sweatshirt and his mouth was gagged with his own socks. His bare feet were bound. He had been raped with "an object" as well as by unknown males. At the tracks, Chris was shot three times. The killers inflicted as much pain as possible. His body was set on fire, which destroyed the DNA evidence and made it impossible to identify which of the killers raped him.
When Chris Newsom was found, his mother wanted to see the body. The police would not let her. Mary Newsom put her arms around the body bag.
Channon Christian was "hog-tied" with a white plastic bag over her head and forced in the trash can. She also was raped by an object. DNA evidence revealed she was raped by Lemaricus Davidson anally and vaginally. Semen from Davidson's half-brother (and Coleman's boyfriend) was found in her mouth. Her vaginal area was beaten bloody.
Care to guess which of the four kicked Channon in her private parts?
With each successive police interview, Vanessa Coleman told a little more. Her final story was that Davidson "snapped her neck" and forced Coleman to "check her pulse."
The autopsy revealed Channon's neck was not snapped. Coleman claimed not to have seen any torture or heard any screams.
The next day the ATF agent testified along with the Knoxville Police Department detective. Lavit accused them in his cross of "tricking" poor Vanessa, the same tactic as in 2010. After going into the night, the prosecution rested. The defense will present their case on Monday, mainly testimony by Coleman's parents and siblings.
The above account is based on notes I took during the first three days of the trial.
David in TN
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