Christian-Newsom murders gain little national attention - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

COMMENTARY: Media missed horrific, tragic crime

Updated: June 10, 2012 05:30 AM
Christopher Newsom, left, and his girlfriend Channon Christian had been dating for about two months before they were kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed. (Source: Newsom family photo) Christopher Newsom, left, and his girlfriend Channon Christian had been dating for about two months before they were kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed. (Source: Newsom family photo)

(RNN) – It was the sort of case that usually incites a media feeding frenzy, resulting in hour after hour of television coverage, and page after page of newspaper reports.

Early in the morning of Jan. 7, 2007, two young people were kidnapped after leaving a friend's apartment, tortured for days, murdered and dumped. The couple suffered untold agony, and the families have endured multiple murder trials, still with no resolution five years later.

But you've probably never heard the victims' names.

The murders of Channon Christian and Christian Newsom stand in stark contrast to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by a neighbor of his father's fiancee.

A commentary like this barely must mention Martin or his shooter, George Zimmerman, before you can recall most of the facts: Neighborhood watch, Skittles, hoodie, 911, "suspicious."

Very few cases are identifiable by their names alone. The Christian-Newsome case is not one of those.

One morning in January

It is probably safe to say most people do not remember the details of their story unless they live in or near Knoxville, TN.

Early that January morning, Christian and Newsom, who had only been dating a few months, left a friend's apartment after spending most of the night out. They were carjacked, kidnapped, tortured for days, and killed.

Three men and one woman were convicted of raping both Christian and Newsom inside a house just a few miles away from where they were kidnapped, and another man was convicted as an accessory to the crime. The group is accused of burning Newsom's body and leaving him for dead on the railroad tracks near the house.

They allegedly raped Christian during the course of two days, poured chemicals down her throat and on her body to destroy DNA, wrapped her in garbage bags and stuffed her in a trash can inside the house, where she apparently suffocated.

These crimes were gruesome. But other aspects about the case also raise questions.

First, the couple's brutal killing barely earned a mention on national news. Second, few media outlets made mention of the racial aspect of the case.

All five of the defendants were black; the victims were white.

Some major networks picked it up, and thanks to YouTube, it's possible to see some of those stories. But it hardly got the lead story or break-into-a-live-broadcast treatment that the Trayvon Martin shooting and other similar events have received.

"We've heard from people all over the country," said Mary Newsom, Christopher's mother. "I guess there would have been national coverage if it hadn't been black on white. We're constantly reminded about it. We don't mind talking about it, but people know us wherever we go, so that keeps it fresh."

National media even had the chance at a do-over for this story.

Last year, Richard Baumgartner, the judge who oversaw the trials, stepped down and was later found to have been addicted to prescription drugs while on the bench and having sex during courtroom breaks.

The allegations threw into doubt his fitness during the last two years of his career, which included the Christian-Newsom trials.

Three of the defendants' convictions were thrown out - including one conviction that resulted in a sentence of death - and a judge ordered new trials for them.

However, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently ruled to vacate the order for retrials and asked Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood to consider requesting retrials on grounds other than Baumgartner's misconduct.

The state's highest court acknowledged that the original trial judge violated the Code of Judicial Conduct, but there isn't enough evidence to support allegations that he was doing so while presiding over the trials.

Both sets of parents have faithfully attended a series of trials during the past 5 1/2 years, and now they will have to wait even longer to receive justice in their children's deaths.

"Nothing was wrong with the trials that Judge Baumgartner presided over," Newsom said. "There was no evidence that he did anything wrong. We were hoping to get justice for our kids, and that's what we thought we had. We wanted the death penalty for all of them, but a jury of people decided what they thought was the best punishment."

How did we miss that?

As most people know, the news stories that receive the largest - and loudest - headlines are often the most sensational. And sensational headlines often drown out lesser known story lines.

So what was happening in early January 2007 that the Christian-Newsom murders were overlooked?

The Knoxville News Sentinel covered the trials and produced a documentary on the murders.

Reporter Jamie Satterfield said during the 16-minute film there was some national coverage, but it was sparse.

"There has been some coverage," Satterfield said in the documentary. "CNN did a piece. Fox News did some reporting. Although this case is shocking to us and certainly unfamiliar territory to east Tennessee, it is not necessarily something that hasn't occurred similarly in other parts of the country."

For many, the cries of racism that permeated the Trayvon Martin killing further emphasized that a racial motive in the Christian-Newsome case was not given any prominent play in the national media.

Let's consider some other cases that did:

Five white cops beat a black man in Los Angeles. Hate crime.

Three white men in Texas drag a black man to death behind their truck. Hate crime.

A gay college student is beaten and tied to a fence in Laramie, WY. Hate crime.

High school students in Jena, LA, hang a noose from a tree. Hate crime.

What determines what constitutes a hate crime and what determines which stories make national news?

It happened again ... and then again

Police officers in White Plains, NY, shot and killed 68-year-old Marine veteran Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. inside his apartment in November 2011 after he mistakenly hit the button on his medical alert pendant.

Police officers arrived at Chamberlain's home and allegedly broke down his door, despite family members and Chamberlain himself telling the officers he was fine.

The medical alert device was equipped with two-way communication, and the standoff with police was recorded.

Chamberlain's son, Kenneth Jr., said he listened to the taped exchange and heard his father tell the officers he had a heart condition. The senior Chamberlain reportedly spoke directly into the medical device and said the officers were going to come in and kill him.

Kenneth Jr. also said he heard the officers using the N-word while subduing the man inside his home.

Less than two hours later, Chamberlain was dead.

"As far as our family - everyone is holding it together," Kenneth Chamberlain Jr. told the Pleasantville-Briarcliff Manor Patch. "It's very upsetting, all of the media and everything. It's definitely overwhelming, but we have to continue to push this and make the public aware of what's happening."

One of the officers involved, Steven Hart, had a lawsuit brought against him in early 2011 by a Hispanic man who claimed he was racially profiled, falsely arrested and beaten.

But again, Chamberlain wasn't a major national story, although the details seem similar to the Amadou Diallo shooting. Diallo's case exploded onto the national scene when police officers fired 41 shots at him and killed him after they mistook the wallet he was reaching for as a gun.

George Zimmerman, who is of mixed race, shot Martin, a black 17-year-old who was unarmed, while Martin was walking through a Twin Lakes neighborhood just outside Sanford, FL.

According to a Reuters report, a police officer advised Zimmerman to buy a gun in late 2009 because of several run-ins with dogs in the neighborhood.

Nearly two years later, a rash of burglaries reportedly broke out, and several residents of the neighborhood told police the suspects were black.

Almost six weeks passed between Martin's death and the filing of official charges against Zimmerman, and it was about a week after that when he was arrested.

Both factors led to a public uproar that escaped no one's attention, including President Barack Obama.

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman will be household names for a long time.

But Christian, Newsom and Chamberlain won't make it into that circle by a long shot.

*Editor's note:  An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that Newsom's penis had been severed. Newsom's parents have said it was not. It also reported that Channon Christian was forced to watch the murder of her boyfriend. Evidence at trial does not support that assertion.

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