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A Knox County, Tennessee judge on Friday rejected the notion that the lone female suspect in a January 2007 torture slaying was a young innocent under the domination of brutal killers.
Instead, Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner deemed Vanessa Coleman, 22, a street-savvy woman in firm command of her actions and callously indifferent to the consequences.
“There’s no question she was young,” Baumgartner said of a then-18-year-old Coleman. “But Ms. Coleman was not your typical 18-year-old who just graduated from high school. … This was a street-smart young lady. She made the decision to have a relationship with Mr. (Letalvis) Cobbins. She’s the one who made the decision to come down to Tennessee. She’s the one who made the decision to stay here.”
With that, Baumgartner turned aside Coleman’s bid for leniency and ordered her to serve 53 years in prison. She will be eligible for parole after serving roughly a third of that term, but the families of victims Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23, vowed Friday to fight against any early release for the Kentucky native.
“I will be there every time, and I will tell them about my nightmare,” mother Deena Christian said.
Ted Lavit, Coleman’s attorney from Lebanon, Ky., said his client has received credit for time served since Jan. 31, 2007. He said she has received credit for 4.5 years, and with the sentencing of 53 years, Coleman can actually be eligible for parole in just over 11 years when that time served is calculated into the equation. In addition, he said she can receive credit for 15 days of “good time credit” for every month of her sentence based on good behavior. With that credit, Coleman could be eligible for parole in less than six years.
Baumgartner told Coleman that she got all the leniency she was going to get from the Davidson County jury that in May acquitted her of any role in the crimes against Newsom and refused to assign her the same level of culpability for the crimes against Christian as that of her three male co-defendants. Instead, the panel convicted her of lesser charges as a “facilitator.”
“She’s already benefited by the jury’s verdict for those (mitigating) factors,” the judge said. “She should not in my judgment benefit again by having those factors considered and reducing her sentence.”
Defense attorney Ted Lavit argued at Friday’s hearing - as he did at her trial - that Coleman was herself a victim.
“They foisted this criminal activity on her,” Lavit said of her co-defendants. “She was there, and these three killers brought these crimes to her door.”
But Assistant District Attorney General Leland Price countered that testimony showed Coleman knew her boyfriend, Letalvis Cobbins; his brother, Lemaricus Davidson; and Cobbins’ pal, George Thomas, left Davidson’s Chipman Street house on the night of the couple’s abduction with plans to pull off a heist of some sort.
“She was there and (already) saw the violence (ringleader) Lemaricus Davidson was capable of,” Price said. “She stayed. She had plenty of opportunity to get away and stop this crime. She didn’t.”
Davidson has been sentenced to death for his role as ringleader. Cobbins and Thomas are serving life without possibility of parole. A fifth suspect, Eric Boyd, has never been charged in the killings but is spending 18 years in federal prison as an accessory to the carjacking.
Baumgartner, who has presided over every trial except Boyd’s federal case, said his study of the defendants left him convinced Coleman had nothing to fear inside Chipman Street, where Christian and Newsom were held captive and Christian raped and slain.
“I don’t think she acted under duress,” the judge said. “I don’t think Mr. Cobbins cared one way or the other. … Mr. Davidson was a bad actor, but, again, I don’t think he cared about Vanessa Coleman. She could have left that place.”
Because Coleman was cleared in Newsom’s death, his parents, Mary and Hugh Newsom, were not allowed to speak at Friday’s hearing.
“I was rather disappointed in that, but I understand the law,” Hugh Newsom said. “I could have gone on for days with comments directed at her, but this was really about the judge” and his decision-making.
Channon Christian’s father, Gary Christian, seemed to agree, using his turn on the witness stand Friday to remind Baumgartner of his own characterization of the crimes as unspeakably horrific. Gary Christian also on Friday for the first time, in what has been a series of back-to-back sentencing hearings, projected not his rage, but his pain.
“For me personally, you took my baby,” he said, his voice soft and thick. “You took my opportunity to say yes to a young man one day. You took my (wedding) dance away. You took my opportunity to hold her child, my grand baby.”
His wife, however, took direct aim at Coleman, reading entries Coleman made in a journal in which she characterized her time in Knoxville during the crime spree as “an adventure.”
“I guess you wanted souvenirs from your adventure,” Deena Christian said, referring to her daughter’s belongings found in Coleman’s possession. “That’s sick.”
Although Baumgartner made the decision to stack one on the other penalties for most of the crimes Coleman committed - a move that always draws appellate scrutiny - he did opt to treat the three distinct acts of rape committed against Channon Christian as a single crime for sentencing purposes. That spared Coleman an extra 24 years, but most legal observers noted the move may make his overall sentencing decision more palatable to the appellate courts.
Lavit said Monday that he was not surprised with the verdict, but added that it was compromised in his opinion.
“I felt the verdict dealing with Vanessa Coleman was a compromised verdict. I felt the state had miserably failed to prove her involvement in any criminal activity, but I wasn’t surprised that the judge gave her consecutive sentencing and maximum punishment because of the climate among the population of Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Lavit said appeals are planned on Coleman’s behalf, and one of those is based on the fact that she testified before a grand jury in 2007. According to Lavit, Tennessee law states that anyone who is subpoenaed and testifies before a grand jury cannot be indicted for crimes related to that testimony.
“The United States only used Vanessa Coleman’s testimony before the grand jury for information purposes, and didn’t indict her for anything,” he said. “They turned over their information to the state of Tennessee, and a Knox County grand jury indicted her. There is a provision in Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure that if you’re subpoenaed before a grand jury, you cannot be indicted for any act or crime that deals with your testimony. Our immunity issue revolves around the fact that she was subpoenaed and indicted by a Knox County grand jury for crimes that she was subpoenaed to testify about, which was prohibited by the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure.”
In addition to the immunity issue, Lavit said there are also issues involving evidence.
Lavit said petitions have gone before two appellate courts in Tennessee, but they would not hear them because the case had not gone to trial at the time. Now, with the trial completed, Lavit said he will appeal, and he will go as far as the United States Supreme Court if necessary. An appeal date has been set by Judge Baumgartner, and Lavit said it will follow appeals by the previous three defendants tried in relation to the Knoxville murders. The earliest an appeal could be heard on Coleman’s behalf is May 28, 2011, according to Lavit, who doesn’t expect to be successful in the first appeal.
“Should we not be successful, and I don’t think for one minute we are going to be successful, then we’ll move on with those immunity and evidentiary issues to the two appellate courts of Tennessee, and thereafter to the Supreme Court of the United States if necessary.”
A portion of this article was written by Jamie Satterfield of the Knoxville News Sentinel, and it is reprinted here with permission.