Noooooooooo! Sealed TBI file proof enough for reversal of trials in fatal Christian/Newsom carjacking case, attorney says
A file the public is barred from seeing is so damning as to require automatic reversals of the convictions in one of Knoxville’s most horrific crimes in recent times, an attorney argued Friday.
Doug Trant told Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation file on former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner presents “overwhelming” evidence the trials of four defendants in the January 2007 torture-slayings of a young couple were “structurally” flawed and must be overturned as a matter of law.
Trant served as co-counsel for Lemaricus Davidson, the convicted ringleader in the carjacking and killing of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23. Also in court Friday were attorneys for co-defendants Letalvis Cobbins, George Thomas and Vanessa Coleman.
All four are seeking new trials, in part, because of revelations Bau
mgartner was buying from a felon on probation in his court and using hundreds of prescription painkillers.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a probe of Baumgartner in late 2010 — months after the last of the four trials in the Christian/Newsom case. That probe showed Baumgartner was using drugs bought from felon Christopher Gibson as early as November 2009.
The TBI’s file has been kept secret, so it’s not clear if there are allegations the judge was abusing drugs before he was first introduced to Gibson in November 2009.
The information in the TBI file that attorneys insist plainly shows the need for new trials also is secret.
Although Blackwood has not cited a legal basis for the secrecy in any court document publicly available, he, so far, has ordered nearly every document filed in the case to be sealed since Baumgartner stepped down in March.
So the public has no way to know whether Trant’s argument has merit, whether the remaining defendants are adopting his argument or pursuing additional claims, such as alleged impairment by the judge while on the bench, or what state prosecutors Leland Price and TaKisha Fitzgerald have to say about the matters at issue.
The U.S. Supreme Court has defined structural error as a defect affecting “the framework” within which the trial took place that “infects the entire trial process.” Unlike a procedural or legal error, which merits reversal only if it could have impacted the outcome of the trial, a structural error requires automatic reversal, the nation’s high court has ruled.
Examples of structural error include the denial of a defendant the right to an attorney, a “biased” trial judge, racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury, defective reasonable-doubt instructions and denial of a public trial. It’s not clear under which category Trant contends this case falls.
Blackwood said Friday’s hearing was set to decide two major issues — whether Jones can be forced to testify and whether prosecutors Price and Fitzgerald should be replaced by outside prosecutors. Because no records have been made public, it’s not clear why the pair of local DAs or the Knox County office itself might be asked to step away. Blackwood said only that members of District Attorney General Randy Nichols’ office had been interviewed as part of the TBI probe.
As for Jones, prosecutor Price said he wanted her to testify about her interaction with the judge both in court and in chambers during the four trials.
“She would be a key witness, an essential witness for us,” he said.
But Jones, through attorney Tom Scott, argued that her dealings with Baumgartner were protected by confidentiality rules often referred to as the attorney-client privilege, which keeps secret communications between an attorney and his or her client.
Davidson is on death row. Cobbins and Thomas are serving life sentences without parole. Coleman is serving a 53-year prison term. Baumgartner, who was placed on judicial diversion in March after pleading guilty to official misconduct, was disbarred this week by the state Supreme Court. If he obeys the terms of diversion, he will qualify for his state pension.More at Source
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