KNOXVILLE (WATE) — Jurors sentenced George Thomas on Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom.
They chose the sentence four times, one for each conviction of first degree and felony murder in the case. Their decisions were required to be unanimous.
The jurors got the case Wednesday evening after an all day sentencing hearing. They began deliberating Thursday morning and reached their decision in less than two hours.
Thomas, 26, could have been sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Thomas was convicted Tuesday of the murders of the young Knoxville couple January 2007.
The jurors found him guilty of the most severe forms of all 38 counts against him including especially aggravated robbery, especially aggravated kidnapping, aggravated rape and theft of property. He’ll be sentenced on those other charges on February 26, 2010.
Since Thomas was found guilty of the first degree murder and felony murder charges, the jury sentenced him instead of the judge. His family wasn’t in court for the sentencing.
By Thursday afternoon, Thomas was at the Charles Bass Correctional Complex in Nashville.
The jurors weren’t allowed to hear the rehearsals of the victims’ impact statements, which were done Tuesday morning in the courtroom. They only heard the statements in the sentencing hearing itself.
Victims’ families react
“We can’t help but be greedy. We wanted it all,” said Channon’s mother, Deena.
“He’s going to get what’s coming to him in his new life. But in my life, there is nothing but the death penalty,” said Channon’s father, Gary.
“We didn’t get a chance to plead for mercy for our children’s lives,” Deena said.
“If they had heard what we’d heard, they would’ve given him the death penalty,” said Chris’ mother, Mary.
“There’s statements the other defendants made that implicated him far more than what was heard in the trial,” said Chris’ father, Hugh.
“He’s not as passive and laid back as they (his family) would like to think he is,” Deena said.
When asked if they were concerned about the defense’s acquittal motion, Deena said, “He’s (Judge Baumgartner) just taking his time and making sure he does his job well.”
“He won’t let that fool (Thomas) back out on the street,” Gary said.
When asked about one more trial coming up for Vanessa Coleman in May 2010, Hugh said, “We’re hoping for more trials, Eric Boyd and possibly others who were on the fringe, as you say.”
Boyd was convicted in 2008 in federal court as an accessory in this case and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The families were asked if they think they’ll see a Boyd death penalty trial in 2010. “I don’t know about that,” Deena said. “But I said when he was tried, he’s getting away with murder.”
Hugh added that Boyd furnished the transportation that got the defendants to the apartments where Chris and Channon were carjacked.
Deena and Gary said later they believe, by Coleman’s own admission, she was in the kitchen of the house where Channon was killed when she was put in the trash can so they wouldn’t want a deal.
Deena said in Coleman’s case, they wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than life without parole, even if she can help get a conviction against Boyd.
The Newsoms admitted they had compassion for Thomas’ mother when she pleaded for her son during his sentencing hearing. But the Christians said they had no compassion for her or any of his family.
“She can take her pleas and stick it where the sun don’t shine,” Gary said. Deena said their pleas upset her more than anything she heard in that hearing.
After the sentence, Thomas’ attorneys, Stephen Ross Johnson and Tom Dillard, released this statement.
“There are no winners in this case. The Christian and Newsom families have gone through unimaginable pain and loss. The Thomas family is forever saddened. Our thoughts and prayers are with all three families, whose lives have been permanently changed by this tragedy. We will continue to pursue the significant legal issues with Mr. Thomas’ convictions.”
State’s opening argument
Prosecutor Takisha Fitzgerald told the jury Thursday the state believes six aggravating circumstances apply to Thomas in this case.
Defense’s opening argument
“Every human life has value. George Thomas’ life has value,” said his attorney, Stephen Johnson.
He told the jurors that mitigating factors should apply to their sentence for Thomas, who grew up in Michigan.
Johnson said Thomas’ father was a crack addict who physically abused him including tying him to a pole and beating him with a belt.
Johnson said Thomas’ mother, who’s also from Michigan, worked three jobs. She will testify in the sentencing hearing on his behalf.
“You can give him mercy. The death penalty is reserved for worst of the worst. You know who the worst are,” Johnson said, alluding to Letalvis Cobbins and LeMaricus Davidson, who’ve already been convicted in this case.
In October, Davidson was given the death penalty for his role in the slayings.
Cobbins, who’s Davidson’s half-brother, was convicted in August and sentenced to life without parole.
Victim impact statements
The Christian and Newsom parents took the stand one-by-one to tell the jurors about their children and how the loss has affected their lives.
Deena Christian said her Channon “was beautiful inside and out,” loved her brother, was daddy’s girl and her mother’s best friend.
Channon was a sociology major a senior at the University of Tennessee when she was killed and wanted to help children for a living.
“Did Channon and Chris suffer? What do you think?” Deena asked as her husband, Gary, stared at Thomas.
“My perfect family is now broken,” Deena said.
Deena said she and Gary failed Channon because “We were unable to keep her safe.”
She also said the defendants could have kept Channon’s Toyota 4Runner, but they wanted their daughter back.
“You never think anything like this could happen, but it can and it did. I hope she can forgive us for failing to protect her.”
“There’s a hole in our hearts that will never be filled. I miss my little peanut,” Deena said.
Gary Christian said Channon had a beautiful smile, face and heart.
He described how Channon wanted four kids as he fought back tears and stared at Thomas as he said how much he misses Channon.
He said Channon loved her brother and followed him through five states as he played ball, telling him to “cowboy up” when he got down.
Gary said, “The pain won’t go away. I hope some way, some day, she can forgive me. I want her to know once and for all I love her more.”
Gary said he prays to God to keep Channon safe now.
Mary Newsom, said Chris “was the type of son any mother would be proud to have.”
She said Chris was a talented artist and athlete who loved going to the beach and NASCAR.
“You just can’t get the images out of your mind about what happened,” Mary said. “I have many sleepless nights.”
“I can’t even imagine how scared he was throughout this horrible ordeal,” Mary said.
Mary broke down on the stand as she talked about how her life will never be the same because of this senseless crime.
She also said on Chris’ last Christmas with his family, he said he didn’t want anything but “world peace.”
Hugh Newsom said he remembers Mary coming to his workplace at TVA to tell him she was pregnant. Hugh said he was 41 at the time and overjoyed.
“I go up to (Chris’) room from time to time. It’s full of trophies, ribbons and medals, but it’s empty.”
He told the jury about a young black man who worked with Chris and hitchhiked to get to his funeral, giving his condolences with tears rolling down his face.
Hugh cried as he recalled Chris admonishing him for making a negative comment about one of Chris’ friends.
“I know he was scared having to walk with cold mud caked on his feet to his execution spot, but I know his last thought was his concern for Channon.”
“If I could give all my money and live on the streets to get Chris back, I would do it. That’s how much I miss him.”
“This Christmas, remember the Christian and Newsom families,” Hugh said, “because there will be an empty seat at the tables.” His words caused his wife to weep.
Hugh quoted an article in the Halls Shopper that honored Chris using a baseball motif. “Chris Newsom is safe at home.”
Thomas’ aunt, Latonya Eason, said Thomas’ mother worked three jobs at one time while he was young.
She said his father was never a role model for George. His father was in and out of jail for drugs and other problems and stole from family members.
She said George was beaten by his father. “I never saw it, but I heard about what he did.”
Thomas was always withdrawn, reserved, quiet and somewhat shy. He didn’t speak much and was always respectful.
She said Thomas was very passive. “George stayed back. He wasn’t the kind of person who would move to front.” She also said he was likely to “mind his own business.”
Eason said Thomas left Michigan for Memphis when he was 20.
“We all feel everyone’s pain. I’ve been praying for the families. Have mercy (on George),” she said directly to the jury.
On cross examination, prosecutor Takisha Fitzgerald pointed out that Eason lost touch with Thomas for five years after he left Michigan.
Fitzgerald said Thomas’ father has been writing letters to him while he’s been jailed. “I didn’t know that,” Eason said.
Fitzgerald also pointed out Thomas’ great grandmother was a successful career woman who owned several properties. Eason said she didn’t know if she would agree that the great grandmother was “wealthy.”
Thomas’ half-brother, Antoine Jones, told the court they had the same father and different mothers.
Jones said their father, Alan Thomas, died this past February.
He said their father would tie them to a support post in the basement and beat them with such objects as an extension cord or belt until he got tired. He said this started when Thomas was three and lasted until he was six.
Jones said he protected Thomas from bullies when he was picked on in high school.
Jones begged the jury for Thomas’ life. “I love him. I just don’t want to see him dead.” He said he’s seen too many people die this year.
Thomas may not have played football in high school or college. The state has brought this up more than once to show that Thomas lied to others about his past.
Jones traveled to Knoxville by bus from Michigan to appear at the hearing. He said the trip took about 12 hours.
Another Thomas’ aunt
Maria Anderson, a registered nurse and ordained minister in Michigan, told the jury Thomas and his family lived with her during part of his youth.
She said Thomas had a quiet demeanor and was “humble” when he lived with her and he went to church and did as he was told.
Anderson broke down in tears as she asked the jury to spare Thomas’ life and have mercy. “I love George. I love George. This is really hard for me.”
“My humble prayer is to have mercy on him.”
Anderson told prosecutor Takisha Fitzgerald Thomas has a young child, but he’s “not an active parent.”
Former Thomas minister
Arbis Alexander took the stand and said he’s a minister who retired as the manager of a reform school in Michigan.
He knew Thomas when he was a teenager and said he went to his church. “He was always respectful.” He said Thomas attended a new convert class where he was taught about the Bible.
Alexander said the Thomas family was very hard working and parented to the best of their ability.
“Is his life worth saving?” the defense attorney asked. “Yes, I would say it’s worth saving,” Alexander said.
Former Thomas’ social worker
Thomas Anderson, a social worker who works with homeless groups in Memphis, took the stand. He’s the director of the Breakfast Club rehab program and said he was once addicted to drugs himself.
Anderson said he tried to clean up his act for years. “I thought at times I was hopeless.”
He met Thomas at a homeless shelter in the Breakfast Club program and said he was quiet, kept to himself and always sat by a window alone.
Anderson said Thomas stayed at a homeless center while going through his program.
He said the Thomas he knew “was a quiet, young man and obedient” who would have valued life.
On cross examination, Anderson told prosecutor Takisha Fitzgerald Thomas “…wasn’t the type I thought would take someone’s life.”
George Thomas’ mother, Bridget Thomas, took the stand. She started to cry as Thomas’ attorney, Tom Dillard, showed a picture of a very young Thomas to her. “That’s my baby, George Thomas.”
She said she worked 16 hours a day to provide for her three children.
She said George’s father stole her car for days, causing her to lose her job.
His mother described George as a “loving person and a loner who keeps to himself. He doesn’t like fights or confrontations.”
“When I look at him, all I see is my baby. I love that boy with all my being.”
His mother looked directly at him and said, “I love you, George, you know that, like I love all my children.” Thomas nodded and looked teary eyed.
She begged the jury to have “mercy and grace” and spare George’s life.
She told prosecutor Leland Price she tried to teach George right from wrong and he often walked away from trouble.
Thomas doesn’t testify
Thomas told Judge Baumgartner he decided not to testify in his defense during the sentencing hearing.
Thomas doesn’t follow rules in jail
Judge Baumgartner sided with the state in a debate with the defense over introducing testimony about Thomas being in trouble while in jail.
Then prosecutor Takisha Fitzgerald called Mary Ann Hays with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office Disciplinary Board to the stand.
Hays said Thomas doesn’t follow rules and isn’t quiet while he’s been in jail. She said records show he doesn’t comply with rules or authority.
State’s closing argument
Prosecutor Takisha Fitzgerald told the jury, “It’s always hard when you’ve got a defendant with a good family, but what happened to those two kids deserves.”
Defense’s closing argument
Defense attorney Tom Dillard told the jury that the death penalty is for “the worst of the worst” and that would be for Cobbins and Davidson, the half-brothers who were previously convicted in this case.
In October, Davidson was given the death penalty for his role in the slayings.
Cobbins was convicted in August and sentenced to life without parole.
Dillard told the jury, “We’re past criminal responsibility. Do we add to the tragedy?”
State’s rebuttal closing argument
Prosecutor Leland Price told the jury, “This case cries out for the death penalty.”
He said there’s no rule that says because Davidson and Cobbins are murderers, someone else who was involved like Thomas was better.
Price said the way Christian and Newsom were treated was heinous, atrocious and cruel. He said the defendants could’ve let them go because they had all their stuff, but they didn’t.
Judge’s ruling still delayed on defense motion for acquittal
Judge Baumgartner denied an initial motion by the defense Monday to acquit Thomas after his attorneys argued that the state didn’t meet its burden of proof in the case.
However, the defense renewed its motion for acquittal after the verdict Tuesday and again Wednesday morning.
Defense attorney Stephen Ross Johnson argued that Thomas shouldn’t face the death penalty under the law because there was no proof of Thomas’ direct conduct in the murders.
Judge Baumgartner has continued to reserve his judgement on the motion. He asked the state to issue a written response on the motion, which is due by the first week of January.
The judge also said he’ll issue his written decision after that.
This means the judge has the final say on the matter, barring any appeals. He could possibly throw out the sentence if he feels it’s not backed up by the evidence in the case.