What is a hate crime?
Some are asking why there is no media outcry over murders in which victims were white and those charged are black.
By Howard Witt, Tribune senior correspondent
June 10, 2007
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - What happened to Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, a young Knoxville couple out on an ordinary Saturday night date, was undeniably brutal. The two were carjacked, kidnapped, raped and finally murdered during an ordeal of unimaginable terror in January.
But whether the attack was a racial hate crime worthy of national media attention is another question, one that has now ignited a fierce dispute over the definition of hate crimes and how the mainstream media choose to cover America's most discomfiting interracial attacks.
That's because the murders of Christian and Newsom didn't fit the familiar contours of a traditional Old South attack, in which whites target blacks and reporters quickly assume the motivation must have been racial.
Instead, the races were reversed: Christian and Newsom were white; the three men and one woman charged with their murders are black. And the failure of the story to gain much media attention outside of the Knoxville area has galvanized conservative commentators across the country. They insist the case offers clear evidence of liberal bias in the major media.
They have launched a broad Internet campaign, waged via blogs, e-mails and YouTube videos, to counter what they regard as suppression of a story about an anti-white hate crime.
"There is a discomfort level [in the national media] with stories that have black assailants and white victims," said Michelle Malkin, a prominent conservative newspaper columnist and TV commentator who has featured the Knoxville case on her Web site. "If it doesn't fit some sort of predetermined narrative of how we view taboo subjects like race and crime, there's a disinclination to cover it."
Country music star Charlie Daniels, who lives 150 miles from Knoxville, contrasted scant coverage of the Christian-Newsom murders with the national media frenzy that erupted last year when a black woman accused three white members of the Duke University lacrosse team of raping her at a party. The white players were cleared in April after the accuser proved unreliable and no evidence corroborated a crime.
"If this [Knoxville case] had been white on black crime, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and their ilk would have descended on Knoxville like a swarm of angry bees," Daniels wrote on his Web site. "I guess the lack of TV cameras discouraged them."
Cause celebre for extremists
Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists have jumped on the case as well, drawn to the state where the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865. Hate groups have organized rallies in Knoxville and set up Web sites under the victims' names to spew racial invective.
But it's not just conservative whites and extremists who have criticized the national silence over the Knoxville case.
"Black leaders are not eager to take this on because it's one more thing that would cast a negative light on African-Americans," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and nationally syndicated black columnist who has written frequently about the reluctance of black leaders to denounce crimes committed by blacks against whites. "There's already an ancient stereotype that blacks are more violent and crime-prone, anyway."
Rev. Ezra Maize, the president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP, has been one of the few black leaders to address the case.
"It doesn't make me uncomfortable speaking out against this crime because it was African-Americans [allegedly] committing a crime against Caucasians," Maize said. "It's not a black-and-white issue. It's a right-and-wrong issue. Those who committed this crime were unjust in doing so and they should pay the penalty."
Carjacked, then kidnapped
The murders of Newsom and Christian have resonated because they play into some of the deepest fears of urban crime harbored by many Americans. By all the accounts of authorities, the couple—Newsom, 23, was a talented carpenter and former high school baseball star; Christian, 21, was a senior at the University of Tennessee—fell victim to a random carjacking Jan. 6 in the parking lot of an apartment complex where they had gone to visit friends.
Authorities say the couple's assailants, some of them ex-convicts, forced their victims to drive at gunpoint to a clapboard house in one of Knoxville's roughest neighborhoods, where both victims were raped and then killed. Newsom's body, shot and burned, was found dumped beside nearby railroad tracks, while Christian, who was strangled, beaten raped, tortured with chemicals and died of suffocation after being hogtied in a forced fetal position and bundled in plastic garbage bags inside the house and stuffed into a garbage can on the porch, where she slowly died.
State prosecutors have lodged murder, rape and other charges against brothers Lemaricus Davidson, 25, and Letalvis Cobbins, 24; Cobbins' girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 18; and George Thomas, 24. Their trials are set for next year, and officials have not yet revealed whether they will seek the death penalty. A fifth suspect was charged in federal court as an accessory.
Yet as brutal as the crime was, Knoxville authorities have strongly denied that it was racially motivated. And they have sought to correct rumors, eagerly spread by white supremacist Web sites, that the couple had been sexually mutilated before they were killed and their bodies dismembered afterward.
"There is absolutely no proof of a hate crime," said John Gill, special counsel to Knox County District Atty. Randy Nichols. "It was a terrible crime, a horrendous crime, but race was not a motive. We know from our investigation that the people charged in this case were friends with white people, socialized with white people, dated white people. So not only is there no evidence of any racial animus, there's evidence to the contrary."
Newsom's parents do not accept that logic.
"If this wasn't a hate crime, then I don't know how you would define a hate crime," said Mary Newsom, Christopher's mother. "It may have started out as a carjacking, but what it developed into was blacks hating whites. To do the things they did, they would have to hate them to do that."
Conservatives cite examples
Official hate crime or not, to most conservative critics what the Knoxville case illustrates is the general reluctance of the mainstream media to report black-on-white crimes. As examples, many cite a 1999 incident in North Charleston, S.C., in which seven black youths attacked two white bicyclists riding through their neighborhood, leaving one permanently disabled; a 2000 mass-murder case in Wichita, Kan., in which two black brothers kidnapped and killed four white victims; and an attack last year in Long Beach, Calif., in which 11 black teenagers attacked and severely beat three young white women.
Only the Long Beach case was charged by local authorities as a hate crime, and none of the stories drew sustained national attention.
"You've seen a lot of people with impeccable credentials making the point that the press does play up white-on-black crime and play down black-on-white crime," said Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who publishes political and media commentaries on his widely read Instapundit blog. "I think it's a fair criticism. And it just empowers the crazies when the mainstream media soft-pedals this stuff."
In reality, statistics from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice offer a mixed picture of crime and race in America.
What the statistics say
On one hand, African-Americans bear the brunt of violent crime in the U.S.: In 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to fall victim to serious violent crime, most often at the hands of other blacks.
Blacks are also the overwhelming majority of victims of attacks recorded by the FBI as hate crimes. In 2005, blacks were the victims in 68 percent of nearly 5,000 hate-crime incidents nationwide, while whites were the victims in 20 percent of the cases. Whites accounted for60 percent of known hate-crime offenders, while blacks accounted for 20 percent.
But on the other hand, when overall cross-racial violent crimes are tabulated—including incidents not formally classified as racially motivated hate crimes—Justice Department statistics show that blacks attack whites far more often than whites attack blacks.
In 2005, there were more than 645,000 victims of cross-racial violent crimes between blacks and whites in the U.S. In 90 percent of those crimes, black offenders attacked white victims.
"In the old days," said Hutchinson, contemplating that statistic, "when you said 'hate crimes,' it was automatic—whites victimizing blacks. Today you have to pause for a minute and not make automatic assumptions."
Media Bias - Nationwide news blackout: What have you heard of this case?
Murder or Hate Crime? Race not an issue in gruesome murders?
Lemaricus "Slim" Davidson, a Black male, age 25 faces a total of 46 charges. Davidson was indicated on 16 counts of Felony Murder growing out of rape, robbery, kidnapping and theft of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Two counts premeditated murder of Christian and Newsom, 4 counts especially aggravated kidnapping of Christian and Newsom, 20 counts aggravated rape of Christian and Newsom and 2 counts of theft from Christian and Newsom.
Latalvis "Rome" Cobbins, Black male, age 24, faces a total of 46 charges. Cobbins was indicted on 16 counts of Felony Murder growing out of rape, robbery, kidnapping and theft of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Two counts especially aggravated robbery from Christian and Newsom, 4 counts especially aggravated kidnapping of Christian and Newsom, 20 counts of aggravated rape of Christian and Newsom and 2 counts of theft from Christian and Newsom.
George "Detroit" Thomas, Black male, age 24, faces a total of 46 charges. Thomas was indicated on 16 counts of Felony Murder growing out of rape, robbery, kidnapping and theft of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Two Counts of premeditated murder of Christian and Newsom, 2 counts especially aggravated robbery from Christian and Newsom, 4 counts especially aggravated kidnapping of Christian and Newsom, 20 counts of aggravated rape of Christian and Newsom and 2 counts of theft from Christian and Newsom.
Vanessa Coleman, Black female, age 18, faces a total of 40 Tennessee State charges. Coleman was indicated on 12 Counts of Felony Murder growing out of rape, robbery, kidnapping and theft of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. One count premeditated murder of Christian only, 1 count of especially aggravated robbery of Newsom only, 4 counts especially aggravated kidnapping of Christian and Newsom, 20 counts of aggravated rape of Christian and Newsom and 2 counts of theft from Christian and Newsom.
Eric "E" Boyd, Black male, age 24, was arrested in connection with the carjacking, but faces only federal charges as an accessory after the fact.
Christian Newsom Murders
The parents of a young couple brutally murdered after a January 2007 carjacking expressed relief this afternoon, while the attorney for Eric Dewayne "E" Boyd said he would appeal the verdict of a federal jury that found Boyd guilty of being an accessory to the carjacking.
"One down. Four to go," said Gary Christian, father of Channon Christian, referring to the four suspects who face trials in state court for the killings of Channon, then 21, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Christopher Newsom.
"In the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2007, when Christopher Newsom was about to die and Channon Christian was about to endure one of the most horrendous, hellacious days anyone could ever endure, that's when he knew they were victims of a violent carjacking," Jennings told jurors. "What did he do for the next three days? Kept his mouth shut and did everything he could to help Davidson."
Late Monday afternoon and early Tuesday morning, jurors heard graphic testimony from Knox County Acting Medical Examiner Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan about the deaths of Newsom and Christian.
She told jurors that Newsom was repeatedly raped and then blindfolded, gagged, arms and feet bound and his head covered. Barefoot, he was either led or dragged outside the house to a set of nearby railroad tracks, where a gun was placed to the back of his head and fired. He was shot twice more, once in the neck and once in the back. His body was then set afire, she said.
Christian's death would come only after hours of sexual torture, Mileusnic-Polchan testified.
"It's much more than a simple sexual assault," she said. "It's extreme."
Christian suffered horrific injuries to her vagina, anus and mouth. She was not only raped but savaged with "an object," the doctor testified. She was beaten in the head. Some type of chemical was poured down her mouth and throat and over her body, including inside and around her bleeding and battered genital area, likely scrubbed with a brush or other rough substance with the same solution - all while she was alive, the forensic expert said. “It would have been very painful.”
She was then "hog-tied," with curtains and strips of bedding, her face covered tightly with a small white trash bag and her body stashed inside five large trash bags before being placed inside a large trash can and covered with sheets, Mileusnic-Polchan testified.
Christian died slowly, suffocating, the medical examiner said.
"My conclusion was she actually died in the trash can," Mileusnic-Polchan testified.
In the wake of that testimony, Lomonaco urged jurors not to allow emotion to sway them.
"You can't base your decisions on emotions or sympathy," said Attorney for the defense.
But Jennings urged them to remember exactly what Davidson, linked along with his brother via DNA evidence to the sexual attack on Christian, did and Boyd allegedly tried to conceal.
Christopher Newsom was either forced to walk barefoot or partially dragged with his ankles bound to the scene of his death, Knox County's acting medical examiner testified late this afternoon.
Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan testified that Newsom, 23, was shot and would have been dead when his body was set on fire.
She described the fatal wound as reminiscent of an execution.
"It appeared to be contact, which means the muzzle of the gun had touched the head," she said.
The forensic expert began her testimony this afternoon in the trial of Eric Dewayne "E" Boyd, who's charged with being an accessory to carjacking for hiding out suspect Lemaricus "Slim" Davidson, the alleged ringleader in the carjacking, torture and slaying of Newsom and his girlfriend, Channon Christian, 21, in January 2007.
In her testimony this afternoon, Milieusnic-Polchan described the path of the bullet as having a downward trajectory, which would mean that either Newsom was forced to kneel or the gunman was significantly taller than Newsom, who was more than 6 feet tall himself.
She also testified that Newsom had bruising and swelling around his anus.
"Sexual trauma was present," she testified.
Mileusnic-Polchan, began testifying about the injuries sustained by Channon Christian, but U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan delayed that testimony until tomorrow after defense attorney Phil Lomonaco tried to block the testimony entirely, citing its graphic nature.
However, before Lomonaco objected, Mileusnic-Polchan testified that Christian was found in "a forced fetal position" inside a trash can. Her thighs were bound to her chest with a pink curtain. Her ankles were bound with strips of bedding. Her head was forced down onto her knees.
Her entire body was then placed inside five large garbage bags. A small white plastic bag was pulled over head. There was a blood stain on her shirt and a camisole underneath the shirt. She was nude from the waist down, as was Newsom.
The medical examiner had just begun to describe were the most significant injuries located in the vaginal region when Varlan delayed her testimony.
"They weren't able to carjack them, so they ordered them to drive," Boyd said in the statement.
"They just, I guess, a car was coming ... pushed them in right in the car because dude (Newsom) was giving girl (Christian) a kiss."
He denied being involved in the carjacking or being at the Chipman Street house following it.
Prior testimony has suggested Boyd was at the house while the couple was being held captive. He is not charged, however, in either the carjacking or the killings.
He admitted being at the Chipman Street house on Sunday when Christian was still alive. He denied seeing her or knowing she was there.
He said Davidson later explained, "They had her tied up in the back room."
He said that Davidson told him that his brother, Letalvis "Rome" Cobbins, and buddy, George "G" Thomas, gang-raped Christian.
Davidson, he said, denied raping Christian but admitted choking her. Boyd said Davidson pinned the killings on Thomas.
McKnight was skeptical.
"They had sex with her, but he choked and killed her. Does that make sense to you?" he asked Boyd in the videotaped interview.
"No, no it don't," Boyd responded.
Later in the interview, Boyd said Davidson admitted dousing Newsom with gasoline and setting his body on fire, which contradicted his earlier account that Thomas had led Newsom out of the house and shot him.
Tipton and McKnight pressed him for an alibi. He initially insisted he could provide one with no problem. But when the investigators would seek specific information, including phone numbers or addresses for people he listed as alibi witnesses, he backed off his assertion that he could provide a specific alibi.
"Walking up and down main street of Ridgebrook (Apartments), just drinking, smoking and drinking and smoking weed, that's all I do every day," he said.
"I may go to Labor Ready occasionally so I can get a little more buzz money."
In testimony this afternoon, Danielle Lightfoot said that Boyd and Davidson showed up on her Ridgebrook Apartments doorstep late on Jan. 9, a Tuesday.
Davidson asked if he and Boyd could stay the night at her apartment. She agreed. She admitted they all smoked marijuana.
She recalled crime-scene footage on an 11 p.m. newscast but insisted she paid it no mind.
However, a noon broadcast the following day commanded her full attention.
"Slim's brother and then Slim's pictures came up (on the screen) that they were wanted for questioning, so I asked what the hell was going on," she said.
Despite that she allowed the two to stay in her apartment while she went to Atlanta.
"I told them when I left they were welcome to have whatever food I had," she said.
In testimony Friday, Davidson's former girlfriend, Daphne Sutton, said she suspected the man was a killer but slept with him anyway.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Jennings and Stone allege Boyd knew about the fatal carjacking when he allegedly took steps to help Davidson avoid arrest. On Thursday, the pair presented surprise evidence suggesting that Boyd knew about the slayings because he was there at the Chipman Street house when the couple were being held captive and brutalized.
She did not mourn the broken relationship long. On the same day she left Davidson, she went out with a man she only identified as "Black" to "eat and hang out." The following night, she had another date, this one ending in sex, she testified.
On Sunday, she talked to Davidson, who asked her to come back to their Chipman Street house so he could give her some clothing he had bought for her, she said. She agreed because she wanted to retrieve make-up and perfume she said she'd left behind.
Davidson met her at the door and followed her inside. Cobbins was sitting on a couch with "his head down." Another slaying suspect, George "G" Thomas, "was rolling a blunt," which is slang for a cigar-style marijuana cigarette, she said. The fourth slaying suspect, Cobbins' girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, was nowhere in sight, she testified.
Sutton said she headed toward the bathroom.
"As soon as I reached the bathroom door, (Davidson) grabbed me and said, 'What are you doing?'" Sutton testified. "I said, 'Is Vanessa in there?' He said yes. It sounded like water was on, and something fell into the sink."
When Sutton tried to approach the bathroom from another door, Davidson again blocked her, she said.
She left, but not before he gave her a bag of clothing and a ring. Turns out, the clothing and the ring belonged to Christian, who authorities believe was being held captive at that moment by Coleman in the bathroom.
Sutton testified that she suspected Davidson when she learned that Newsom's body had been discovered beside railroad tracks within sight of the Chipman Street house. But she allowed Davidson to stay at her friend's apartment and had sex with him. The next day, her mother phoned with news that Christian's body had been found inside a trash can in the Chipman Street house.
"She said, 'Oh, my God, Daphne, they found a body in your house.' She was worried it was me. She didn't know (Davidson) was laying beside me," Sutton testified. "His eyes were really big, like he knew what she was telling me."
More details as they develop online and in Tuesday's News Sentinel.
A 21-year-old University of Tennessee student was gang-raped, choked and bound in January 2007 before being stuffed inside a trash can while still alive, a federal prosecutor told jurors in opening court statements today.
"The evidence will be when she went into that trash can, she was alive," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Jennings said this afternoon in U.S. District Court. "Probably, mercifully, Channon Christian died (later that evening)."
Jennings revealed details about the killings of Christian and her 23-year-old boyfriend, Christopher Newsom, as a jury was seated in the trial of Eric Dewayne "E" Boyd.
Boyd is charged with helping hide out Lemaricus "Slim" Davidson, the alleged ringleader in the carjacking and killing of Christian and Newsom. Jennings also told jurors that Newsom, who had been raped by his assailants, was shot three times.
"These people tie him up, gag him, wrap him in cloth material ... shot him in the back, shot him in the neck, and they shot a kill shot to his head. Then, his body was doused with gasoline and set on fire."
Christian's body was later found in a trash can in a house on Chipman Street. Newsom's body was found nearby along railroad tracks.
Although Boyd did not go to police once he learned about the Christian-Newsom homicides and Davidson's alleged roles in them, Lomonaco said Boyd wound up being stopped by the police a few hours later anyway. He then immediately led them to a vacant house on Reynolds Street where Davidson, wearing Newsom's tennis shoes, was hiding.
Earlier today, lawyers chose 12 women and four men to sit as Boyd's jury. The panel includes four alternates.
On Tuesday Boyd looked back at the Christian family, smiled and appeared to mouth the words, "Bring it on."
Christian's father, Gary Christian, left the courtroom visibly upset but returned a short time later.
However, Lomonaco alleged that Gary Christian initiated Tuesday's encounter by pointing at Boyd.
Gary Christian typically stares intently at all of the suspects charged in the fatal carjacking case. At Boyd's first federal court appearance in January 2007, he made a shooting gesture with his hand at Boyd after Boyd looked directly at him and grinned.
Since then Christian has not made any overt gestures toward Boyd, and the family on Tuesday disputed the notion that he prompted Boyd's actions.
Channon Christian was held captive for hours in January 2007 inside a Chipman Street home leased to Davidson's girlfriend.