George Jones, KSLA, June 10, 2012
It was the sort of case that usually incites a media feeding frenzy, resulting in hour after hour of television coverage, and page after page of newspaper reports.
Early in the morning of Jan. 7, 2007, two young people were kidnapped after leaving a friend’s apartment, tortured for days, murdered and dumped. The couple suffered untold agony, and the families have endured multiple murder trials, still with no resolution five years later.
But you’ve probably never heard the victims’ names.
The murders of Channon Christian and Christian Newsom stand in stark contrast to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by a neighbor of his father’s fiancee.
It is probably safe to say most people do not remember the details of their story unless they live in or near Knoxville, TN.
Early that January morning, Christian and Newsom, who had only been dating a few months, left a friend’s apartment after spending most of the night out. They were carjacked, kidnapped, tortured for days, and killed.
Three men and one woman were convicted of raping both Christian and Newsom inside a house just a few miles away from where they were kidnapped, and another man was convicted as an accessory to the crime. The group is accused of burning Newsom’s body and leaving him for dead on the railroad tracks near the house.
They allegedly raped Christian during the course of two days, poured chemicals down her throat and on her body to destroy DNA, wrapped her in garbage bags and stuffed her in a trash can inside the house, where she apparently suffocated.
These crimes were gruesome. But other aspects about the case also raise questions.
First, the couple’s brutal killing barely earned a mention on national news. Second, few media outlets made mention of the racial aspect of the case.
All five of the defendants were black; the victims were white.
Some major networks picked it up, and thanks to YouTube, it’s possible to see some of those stories. But it hardly got the lead story or break-into-a-live-broadcast treatment that the Trayvon Martin shooting and other similar events have received.
“We’ve heard from people all over the country,” said Mary Newsom, Christopher’s mother. “I guess there would have been national coverage if it hadn’t been black on white. We’re constantly reminded about it. We don’t mind talking about it, but people know us wherever we go, so that keeps it fresh.”
Last year, Richard Baumgartner, the judge who oversaw the trials, stepped down and was later found to have been addicted to prescription drugs while on the bench and having sex during courtroom breaks.
Three of the defendants’ convictions were thrown out — including one conviction that resulted in a sentence of death — and a judge ordered new trials for them.
However, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently ruled to vacate the order for retrials and asked Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood to consider requesting retrials on grounds other than Baumgartner’s misconduct.
The state’s highest court acknowledged that the original trial judge violated the Code of Judicial Conduct, but there isn’t enough evidence to support allegations that he was doing so while presiding over the trials.
Both sets of parents have faithfully attended a series of trials during the past 5 1/2 years, and now they will have to wait even longer to receive justice in their children’s deaths.
“Nothing was wrong with the trials that Judge Baumgartner presided over,” Newsom said. “There was no evidence that he did anything wrong. We were hoping to get justice for our kids, and that’s what we thought we had. We wanted the death penalty for all of them, but a jury of people decided what they thought was the best punishment.”
So what was happening in early January 2007 that the Christian-Newsom murders were overlooked?
The Knoxville News Sentinel covered the trials and produced a documentary on the murders.
Reporter Jamie Satterfield said during the 16-minute film there was some national coverage, but it was sparse.
“There has been some coverage,” Satterfield said in the documentary. “CNN did a piece. Fox News did some reporting. Although this case is shocking to us and certainly unfamiliar territory to east Tennessee, it is not necessarily something that hasn’t occurred similarly in other parts of the country.”
For many, the cries of racism that permeated the Trayvon Martin killing further emphasized that a racial motive in the Christian-Newsome case was not given any prominent play in the national media.
Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman will be household names for a long time.
But Christian, Newsom and Chamberlain won’t make it into that circle by a long shot.