On May 15, Knox County (TN) Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner rescheduled the trial of Knoxville Horror defendant George Geovonni ”Detroit” Thomas for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23, for August 11, the same date it had originally been scheduled for on May 17, 2007. Due to dithering by Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols over whether to seek the death penalty in case of a murder conviction, Thomas’ trial had since been postponed until a date to be determined in 2009, an unconscionable, and arguably unconstitutional delay of over two years after the defendant’s arrest.
The Sixth Amendment states, ”In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial…” This amendment was to prevent British-style abuses, where the government throws someone in jail to rot, without a trial. It never occurred to the Framers that the government might delay a trial, in order to avoid exercising its proper powers, rather than to abuse them. Then again, the Framers never anticipated the likes of Randy Nichols.
Last May, Judge Baumgartner scheduled all four state trials for this spring and summer: May 12 for Letalvis ”Rome” Cobbins; June 16 for Cobbins’ girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman; and July 14 for Cobbins’ half-brother, Lemaricus ”Slim” Davidson.
And yet, DAG Nichols did not announce whether he would seek the death penalty in the first case until December 7, and then only under pressure from Judge Baumgartner. Nichols took until March 3 to announce that he would seek the death penalty in all four cases.
The DAG’s office was responsible for other delays, as well. In early March, Nichols’ prosecutors requested and got permission to repeat DNA tests on the defendants that had been completed one year earlier, leading Thomas’ attorneys, Tom Dillard and Steve Johnson, to suggest that the DAG’s office had lost or destroyed evidence. (See the prosecution’s rejection of the defense’s characterization here. ) Already last October, the prosecution requested and got a delay of its duty to share its evidence with the defense. Since the defense must have sufficient time to examine the people’s evidence, the latter move was bound to delay the trial.
In January, Cobbins’ attorney, Kim Parton, responded to the death penalty notice that she lacked sufficient time to mount a competent defense. Tennessee law requires that any defendant on trial for his life be represented by two defense lawyers, one of whom must be certified as qualified to defend capital cases; the aforementioned defendants only had one defense counsel each. Thus did Judge Baumgartner move the first planned trial, of Cobbins, from May 12, 2008 to January 26, 2009.
In April’s federal trial, in which Eric Dewayne Boyd was convicted as an accessory after the fact to the carjacking, TBI serology expert Jennifer Millsaps testified that DNA matches linked (only) Davidson and Cobbins to the rapes of Christian. (Coleman’s statements to federal investigators put her at the murder scene.) DAG Nichols sought to bolster his weak rape case against Thomas via incriminating testimony in the first three state cases.
Three conditions made seeking the death penalty a no-brainer: 1. The murders were committed in conjunction with other felonies; 2. More than one person was murdered; and 3. The killers’ gruesome, hours-long torture of Channon Christian. DAG Nichols ultimately gave eight reasons for seeking the death penalty.
DAG Nichols’ death penalty dithering appears to this observer to have been due to his desire not to offend Knoxville’s black community, and provided a golden opportunity for Thomas, who already had the requisite attorneys, who applied to the court to restore his original trial date.
The change may imperil the Thomas prosecution.