*Since the time of this writing, Tennessee courts have upheld the decision to keep all offenders involved in this tragedy behind bars, including the female accomplice who was up for parole this December. Vanessa Coleman’s parole was DENIED. Among the reasons for denial were a “depreciation” of the seriousness of what took place in a home where the female accomplice resided for more than 3 days as another woman suffered and passed away. The following essay is one I penned in response to many citizens’ questioning of how such actions could carry such light punishment.
On the Channon Christian and Chris Newsom losses of life*, and Vanessa Coleman’s impending parole
I only learned of the torture deaths of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom because of the national and international media blitz from George Zimmerman’s trial and acquittal last summer. I was under a high workload so I packed away my television as a result, to be left with YouTube video recaps of the Zimmerman trial. As I watched every trial segment available, I was exposed to a stream of violent cases and trials on the YouTube platform. I clicked on one: “Worst Story We All Missed in America.” The story took place in early 2007. I will never understand how few of us knew about it.
The story began when a young Tennessee couple went out on a Saturday night date. Around 10:00 p.m., they were carjacked by a local drug dealer. He was newly released from prison for robbery. Later, this carjacker confessed he robbed a Pizza Hut around this time. I recall I clicked on the video of this man’s death penalty sentencing because he looked like an upper-level executive and powerbroker: handsome, impeccably groomed, calm and in-charge. He looked as if he should have been a lawyer representing a defendant, not a defendant himself.
However the man, Lemaricus Davidson, was a Ted Bundy-type: behind the deaths of this couple in a manner The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s director Tobe Hooper could have scripted and filmed. Davidson, his brother and a mutual friend drove the couple back to Davidson’s rental home at 2316 Chipman Street in Knoxville. Starting on January 6, 2007, from a Saturday night until Monday (when Chris’s body was found burned atop railroad tracks) and Tuesday (when police found Channon’s body in a garbage can in the home), it was a chamber of so much violence even experienced prosecutors fainted when viewing the crime scene photos. Within days, five young African-Americans were rounded up and under arrest. In respect to the victims, the nearby Waste Connections plant purchased the house in order to demolish it and create a memorial.
A seminal moment in a small Tennessee population’s quest to bring national attention to their sad nightmare occurred when Oprah Winfrey came up on Blaze TV’s “The Glenn Beck Program” in August 2013. Mr. Beck attacked Ms. Winfrey’s analogy of Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till, a comparison he rejected based upon unfortunate stereotypes criminalizing Trayvon unto this very day. I could not respect that common racist response. Yet I respected a white female viewer who blew up Beck’s caller hotline; she wanted to know why our country was up in arms about one boy’s death by one gunshot during a one-minute encounter with one deranged man, but no one knew about two people’s deaths over three days involving many methods and assailants.
While I can certainly recognize attempts to obscure the unmistakable realities of persistent discrimination and even fatal profiling against blacks in America, I could understand the female caller’s concerns. We all heard about the Central Park Jogger, JonBenét Ramsey, Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, many more cases. We should have. This tragedy’s burial demonstrates plummeting sensitivities if national news media had no room to point out the extreme and unusual Christian-Newsom tragedy.
Most troubling about the tragedy was the young woman among the four men tried (one man who helped with the carjacking was not present for the torture and murders, and he was only sentenced for the carjacking). Her name is Vanessa Coleman. With legal loopholes and criminals’ rights to earn time for good behavior, as well as prison overpopulation, Ms. Coleman was slated to be up for parole this October. Her date is now delayed until December. Even so, the idea that anyone associated with this incident could only serve seven years in jail for it was so disorienting one man has taken to Change.org to petition the possibility: “Deny Parole to Vanessa Coleman, Offender #473393.”
It took me some time to understand each role played by the five black faces responsible for this troubling event. I finally understood Ms. Coleman’s: nothing. The then-18-year-old did not necessarily initiate or participate in the actual crimes against Channon and Chris, but she did not do a thing to save them or stop their male assailants either. She was on a holiday visit to Tennessee from her native Kentucky, staying in Mr. Davidson’s house because she dated his brother at the time. Two days after the men wrapped Channon in garbage bags, after they all raped her and doused her body in harsh cleaners to remove DNA evidence, Ms. Coleman went back to Kentucky.
Her jury did not convict her of the rapes and murders of Channon or Chris. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison for “facilitation,” the only legal jargon available to account for her existence in the creepy and foul environment of 2316 Chipman Street over the 72 hours these gruesome activities took place. Because she did not testify at her trial, and all but one of the men were advised not to testify, Ms. Coleman’s federal grand jury testimony offers the most intimate portrait of what went on in that home. The clinical stance she maintains in the 78-page transcript of her testimony is chilling.
Ms. Coleman testified that within that environment and those 72 hours, she played a benign role as a naïve domestic ornament of the home: cooking the men Sunday breakfast, giving their female captive water, riding out for candy bars and checking the victim’s pulse. She showered. She changed into new shoes and a new jacket, and filled a new purse—all items once belonging to the female who remained blindfolded and tied up in the front bedroom of the 800-square foot home. As a woman, I naturally feel heartbreak to know another woman went out on a date but found life derailed into a few days of torture-induced delirium. I did not know Ms. Christian but I cried to know she took her last breaths suffocating in a garbage can. The medical examiner testified this is exactly what happened. But I was just gutted to learn another woman was in the house with her during those days. Vanessa let Channon suffer right in her midst. She offered her nothing but a drink of water throughout the ordeal.
One grand juror posed the obvious question: “Were you somewhat terrified with all this activity going on?” Ms. Coleman’s defense was she had intimidation and death threats from the men, lack of transportation and pressure to do what they said. Yet, she admits the three men fell asleep at times, including her boyfriend who shared a bed with her. That was her time to bolt out of the house with a cell phone, or to flee for help at the very nearby waste facility adjacent to the house. Her passive behavior speaks to a voyeuristic apathy pervading our world right now, albeit extraordinary in this instance.
During the trial of one killer, who claimed he subsisted in a marijuana-induced cocoon throughout the events, prosecutors played a recording of a phone call he made from jail to his then-girlfriend, who drove them all to Tennessee to begin with. On the call, he says he knew Channon was there but he slept through it all. His girlfriend asked the question on everybody’s minds: “How the f%# did not…Why didn’t anybody f*#*ing call the police and tell ‘em this was going on?” The man replied: “Oh well, coulda woulda shoulda.” I was so upset these were young, capable African-Americans. Every gung-ho cop and biased American points to instances like this to frame us all.
I am especially concerned about the hypercriminalization of my group in America. However, I must turn tables on this one. I do not know Ms. Coleman or what it is like to be a teenaged woman in a strange state with no one but men to bring me home. I do know human decency and common sense. Anyone who could eat and shower in such surroundings as those where Channon and Chris were brutalized is unpredictable among us, and needs more than seven years behind bars to insure a transformation beyond such a personality. Race aside, this little-known nightmare in America’s heartland shows the extent to which too many of us are media-suffocated, Internet-addicted and desensitized to a point where our next generations may become conditioned to perceive violence like a video game. To be able to haphazardly click on—and past—such sadness does not help.
I know I am guilty of looking the other ways. I have lived in two of the world’s largest metropolises for over half my life, Chicago and New York City. I can not count the number of times I heard to-the-death arguments and fights next door in my apartment buildings, or saw women involved in physical struggles with men on the street, or heard scuffles and rumbles outside. I could, however, possibly count the number of times I have actually called the police or tried to intervene in some way. It’s not many.
I am not alone. Others see and hear these things like I do. While human brutality and crime has existed throughout all generations, only in ours do we have the abilities to know about events to a nearly-supernatural extent. Yet, ear buds tune it out. There is always another website to run to. There is a smartphone screen to tap. I saw the lack of national memorial for these sacrificed young people as a mirror and symbol of the comatose disadvantage our civilization gains with our technological advances. By not knowing something like this has happened on American soil and instead sculpturing our realities according to cyberspace playgrounds—and not the living worlds around us—our society is losing empathy by the click.
In this climate, I am as jolted and agitated as everyone else who loves young black boys who can go to the store and find themselves shot for no reasons. So when I know a young white couple can go on a date to find themselves in an extended torture scenario, before they are murdered by strangers who watch each other rape, and little noise is made about this so that few Americans even know, and a facilitator of this can be out of jail in just a few years, I am even more hopeless. The rug-sweeping of these “all-American,” white victims’ lost lives lets me know there really is no hope for a mass cultural shift toward too much care for black lives. At least not in my lifetime.
*In March of 2014, the Tennessee state legislature passed two bills in Channon Christian’s and Chris Newsom’s names. The Christian Bill prevents past private information about a victim from coming into play as a defense tactic at trial, as Channon’s character was attacked in all trials. The Newsom bill removes the necessity of a judge’s signature or “13th juror” approval on unanimous jury decisions.