I am not playing jokes on the reader. According to Knox County Deputy Attorney General Leland Price, new Knoxville Horror Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood has said that “little birdies” are talking to him, and telling him what to do. Maybe the judge is being facetious, or speaking figuratively, and is referring to informants or tweets. I haven’t the foggiest. However, given his conduct on the case so far, I would not bet against him being delusional. Maybe he needs to try some of the stuff his predecessor, the convict Richard Baumgartner was on, to get less crazy.
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By News Sentinel editorial board
Knoxville News Sentinel
May 30, 2012, 4 a.m.
Correction: This version has been corrected to reflect the state Supreme Court's ruling that defense attorneys submitted no proof that former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner's decision-making was flawed during the Christian/Newsom murder trials.
The Tennessee Supreme Court wisely made Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood reconsider his dismissal of three convictions in the gruesome Christian/Newsom slayings, forcing the judge to cite specific reasons for his decision.
Blackwood now must review the trial records and find supporting evidence — If he can — for his tossing of the convictions of Lamaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins and George Thomas.
In a ruling issued last week, the justices gave Blackwood a framework for his reconsideration. The judge, who has been put in the unenviable position of cleaning up the legal mess former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner left behind, should take his time and amply justify his ultimate decision.
Davidson, Cobbins and Thomas were convicted in the January 2007 kidnapping and killing of Christopher Newsom, 23, and 21-year-old Channon Christian. Baumgartner presided over their trials, as well as the one for alleged accomplice Vanessa Coleman.
Baumgartner later resigned and pleaded guilty to one count of judicial misconduct related to his activities during the trials. He was addicted to prescription drugs, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe concluded, and obtained some of his pills from a convicted felon and carried on an affair with a woman who had appeared in his court. He also demanded and received pills from court personnel.
Blackwood initially ruled that Baumgartner's behavior created a structural defect in the trials that rendered the proceedings invalid. Blackwood also decided he could not act as the "13th juror," as is required of judges in Tennessee criminal cases.
Prosecutors appealed Blackwood's dismissal of the verdicts in the Davidson, Cobbins and Thomas trials. They did not dispute Blackwood's dismissal of Coleman's verdict. Baumgartner appeared intoxicated when the jury foreman tried to return the verdict against her, and later said he had been under the influence of Xanax at the time.
The justices ruled there was not enough evidence for to support dismissal of the verdicts. They found the defense attorneys offered no proof that Baumgartner's decision-making during the trials was flawed.
The justices also found that Blackwood did not justify his contention that he could not act as the 13th juror, saying he needed to cite questions about the credibility of witnesses if he wanted to bow out. Otherwise, they wrote, he could rely on the court record and take Baumgartner's place as the 13th juror.
Blackwood's next decision — and his reasoning behind it — will be crucial to the exercise of justice in Knox County. The defendants deserve fair trials, and the public needs to know that the justice system works, despite a judge's misconduct.
Blackwood must review the record and, in the inevitable appeals, satisfy the justices that his reasoning is sound. Doing so would restore a measure of public confidence in a system that has been shaken by Baumgartner's misdeeds.