KNOXVILLE (WATE) – In a hearing Thursday, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood granted motions for new trials for the four people originally convicted in the Christian-Newsom murders.
Former Knox County Judge Richard Baumgartner presided over the trials of Letalvis Cobbins, LeMaricus Davidson who is Cobbins’ half-brother, Cobbins’ friend George Thomas and Cobbins’ then girlfriend Vanessa Coleman.
After their original trials, Davidson was sent to death row. Cobbins and Thomas received life sentences and Coleman was given a 53-year-sentence.
The victims, Channon Christian and her boyfriend, Chris Newsom, were carjacked, raped and murdered in January 2007.
Baumgartner, who became a drug addict, doctor shopped for narcotics and bought extensively from convicts in his drug court, pleaded guilty to official misconduct in March and was later disbarred, leading to the motions for new trials in this case.
At the start of Thursday’s hearing, prosecutor Leland Price, who participated in the original trials, argued that Baumgartner’s conduct outside court shouldn’t be a deciding factor in these motions, and it could open the door to thousands of other cases being reconsidered.
Price said there were no technical problems in the transcript records so, “We say these were fair trials.”
However, Davidson’s attorney, Doug Trant, said during his client’s trial, Judge Baumgartner was taking up to 30 hydrocodone pills a day.
Trant also said Baumgartner was visiting a woman who graduated from his drug court program, Deena Lee Castleman, in St. Mary’s Hospital, sharing pills with her and later had sex with her in his chambers.
Baumgartner also lied to the court about Castleman passing a drug test, Trant said.
Coleman’s attorney, Theodore Lavit, said Baumgartner was told to seek help for his addiction, but he stayed on the bench during Coleman’s trial.
Judge Blackwood then said the court must consider whether there were major structural errors in the trials, and the hearing was not about the verdicts rendered by jurors.
Blackwood said Judge Baumgartner was incapable of serving as the thirteenth juror, or presiding judge, in three of these cases because he never signed off on the verdicts.
In fact, Judge Blackwood says there are many cases where Judge Baumgartner failed to act as the thirteenth juror.
No witnesses from the TBI probe of Baumgartner testified in Thursday’s hearing, but Judge Blackwood used some statements as fact, reading from and detailing them in the hearing. He released that portion of the file to the public afterward.
Baumgartner’s physician, Dr. Dean Conley, with Knoxville Gastroenterology, tried to wean Baumgartner off his addiction, referred him to another doctor and urged him to retire in 2008. Baumgartner admitted his addiction, but said he needed another three years on the bench.
Dr. Conley described Baumgartner’s appearance at that time as “ghastly.”
The TBI found Baumgartner was doctor shopping. Eight doctors were eventually prescribing hydrocodone, oxycodone and other pills to him. This was going on from 2006 through 2010.
Judge Blackwood said Baumgartner was paying for his prescriptions in cash and he described the actions by the pharmacies as “grossly negligent.”
Baumgartner was also shopping the streets for drugs, according to the TBI probe.
Darlene Gray, the ex-wife of Baumgartner’s drug dealer, Chris Gibson, reported Judge Baumgartner, who they called JB, to the TBI after Gibson asked her to get roxicodone for Baumgartner.
Gray also took pictures of Gibson and Baumgartner snorting crushed pills up their noses.
The TBI found Baumgartner called Gibson’s home several times using the drug court phone.
Gibson was also Castleman’s drug dealer, bailed her out of jail a couple times and met Baumgartner through her.
Gray told the TBI that Baumgartner asked her to “find him a girl for sex” and he took two-hour lunch breaks from the bench to do drugs. Baumgartner’s car was photographed at Castleman’s trailer in Powell.
The TBI found that during breaks in Davidson’s trial, Baumgartner would visit Castleman when she was in St. Mary’s Hospital.
The staff said he would always close the door to Castleman’s room and be there 15-20 minutes at a time. He told a nurse at one point he was her attorney and later even identified himself as the judge.
St. Mary’s registered nurse Margaret Hinkle told the TBI she dreaded seeing the trial judge coming to visit Castleman because she knew her patient would be “messed up” afterward.
The police were called to the hospital when 26 oxycodone pills were found in Castleman’s hospital room. She said her boyfriend gave them to her.
Castleman was cited for possession of a controlled substance, and Baumgartner then tried to influence Judge Andrew Jackson and Assistant District Attorney Jeff Blevins to go easy on her, according to the TBI.
Knox County Drug Court Officer Lisa Mooneyham said she saw Castleman go in Baumgartner’s chambers often when she was visibly high. She claimed she was delivering cookies to him.
Baumgartner later lied to a court clerk and called the YWCA, where he had gotten Castleman housing, and lied about her passing a drug test that was not administered properly. He told her he was “going to hell” for doing this, she told the TBI.
Prosecutors Leland Price and Takisha Fitzgerald saw Baumgartner weaving on Interstate 40 after Cobbins’ jury selection in Nashville. He told them he was on medication for back problems.
Baumgartner’s drug habit was reported to Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols, who reported it to the TBI.
In 2010, Nichols went to Baumgartner’s house to check on him. Baumgartner blamed his actions on too much wine and having a problem sleeping.
Baumgartner’s administrative assistant, Jennifer Judy, said as early as 2008, he was so impaired at times she told him he probably didn’t need to be on the bench.
Judy passed Baumgartner a note during the Coleman trial when he slumped his head down. It said, “Sit up or get off the bench. You’re disrespecting the families.”
Baumgartner wrote back an expletive-filled note that he later didn’t remember writing, the TBI file says.
Judy was asked to cash $100 checks for Baumgartner which he called his “running money.” This once-a-week habit became a daily habit by 2009-2010. On one occasion she was asked to give a sealed letter to Castleman which she believed contained money.
Prosecutor Price told the TBI he believed Baumgartner was “possibly mentally impaired” during the Coleman trial.
In 2006, Castleman had called Baumgartner for a job after graduating from drug court. In 2008, she went by his office and he told her “that he loved his opiates,” the TBI file says.
Baumgartner told Castleman he was taking hydrocodone for his toe, but had run out. He gave her $200 and asked her to get more.
Castleman was arrested shortly after this and wrote a letter to Baumgartner from jail. When she was released, the TBI said she went to the City County Building to meet him and their relationship became sexual.
Baumgartner wound up buying Castleman a phone and paying her utility bills. She told investigators they had sex three times in his chambers.
Castleman also said she stayed with Baumgartner in Chattanooga during jury selection for the Thomas trial.
Chris Gibson agreed to wear a wire during a taped conversation with Castleman when they discussed Baumgartner’s drug use.
Castleman, 33, is currently being held in the Knox County Jail on charges out of Anderson County for aggravated burglary and theft, debit card fraud, simple possession of a controlled substance and DUI. She was denied bond.
Judge Blackwood said after outlining Baumgartner’s actions, “I feel dirty.”
Although Baumgartner pleaded guilty to official misconduct, “You don’t wrap it up by saying misconduct,” Judge Blackwood said. “He knew what he was doing was wrong, and all he did was hide it. I don’t know if it’s stupidity or arrogance, but I call it committing a crime.”
Baumgartner was high on the bench, Judge Blackwood said, and asked, “Would you want your child to be tried by an intoxicated judge?” He added that Baumgartner was “taking the drug court and turning it into a party.”
There is no other conclusion but that Baumgartner was operating on the bench as incapable since 2008, Judge Blackwood said.
Baumgartner “shouldn’t have been on the bench in 2008,” Judge Blackwood said. “Everything he’s done since then, we’re going to have to fight that battle.”
Blackwood also said when he got the Christian-Newsom murders case, his first thought was that he had to save the verdicts. However, he concluded after reviewing the evidence, “I have a duty to the system.”
The TBI file was too volatile to ignore, Blackwood said, and Baumgartner ran his ship to ground.
When court resumed after a break, Letalvis Cobbins stood and said he wanted to make a statement about being beaten in prison. Judge Blackwood said he didn’t want to hear it and sent all four out of court.
After the hearing, Mary Newsom, the mother of murder victim Chris Newsom, said, “I was shocked. It was unbelievable. It was a lot worse than I had thought. We’ve wasted four years of our lives because of him. I feel like our kids have not received justice after five years.”
Both families dread the nightmare of four new trials.
“I still don’t see any reason why we should have to go through this again,” said Channon Christian’s mother, Deena Christian.
The victims’ families agree that Judge Blackwood was left with little choice faced with the disturbing details of Baumgartner’s drug addiction.
However, Gary Christian says Judge Blackwood’s comment about detesting public humiliation really hit a nerve.
“I watched my family and friends go through four trials. Public humiliation? My daughter would be mortified if she was still with us, the pictures you and the public saw of her and what they did to her,” Gary said.
Besides being disgusted by Baumgartner’s actions, Gary Christian says he’s furious at the doctors who were writing Baumgartner prescriptions and he thinks they shouldn’t be allowed to practice anymore.
The dates for the new trials have not been set. The court is scheduled to hear motions on January 12.