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State v. Cobbins

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

February 4, 2015

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
LETALVIS COBBINS, LEMARICUS DAVIDSON, GEORGE THOMAS, AND VANESSA COLEMANIN RE: GARY CHRISTIAN, DEENA CHRISTIAN, HUGH NEWSOM, & MARY NEWSOM TO INTERVENE FOR ACCESS TO COURT RECORDS

Session Date November 18, 2014

Appeal from the Criminal Court for Knox County Nos. 86216A, 86216B, 86216C, 86216D Walter C. Kurtz, Judge

Herbert S. Moncier, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the petitioners, Gary and Deena Christian and Hugh and Mary Newsom.

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Joseph F. Whalen, Acting Solicitor General; and Linda D. Kirklen, Assistant Attorney General, for the respondent, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Timothy L. Easter, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John Everett Williams and Robert W. Wedemeyer, JJ., joined.

OPINION

TIMOTHY L. EASTER, JUDGE

Factual and Procedural Background

These cases arise from the heinous kidnapping, sexual assault, torture, and murder of a young couple in January 2007. After an investigation, Defendants Letalvis Cobbins, Lemaricus Davidson, George Thomas, and Vanessa Coleman were indicted and prosecuted for numerous crimes stemming from this incident. At the original trials on these offenses, the presiding trial judge was Richard Baumgartner. All of the Defendants were convicted in separate trials and sentenced. After the sentencing hearings, the presiding trial judge pled guilty to a charge of official misconduct and resigned before hearing the Defendants' motions for new trial. Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood was then appointed as the successor judge.

On June 9, 2011, Judge Blackwood tentatively approved the jury's verdict for each of the Defendants but reserved entry of his ruling. After the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ("TBI") completed a file on its investigation into the misconduct of the original trial judge ("the TBI file"), Judge Blackwood ordered the State to produce the TBI file in its entirety for review by the court so that he could determine whether it contained potentially exculpatory information to which the Defendants would be entitled under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). After reviewing the TBI file in chambers, Judge Blackwood ordered the disclosure of the TBI file for examination by defense counsel and the prosecution. Based on the TBI file, the Defendants amended their motions for new trial.

The State of Tennessee and the Defendants agreed to the following provisions in a "Joint Stipulation and Order" that was signed and entered by Judge Blackwood on September 19, 2011:

1. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ("TBI") file, previously provided to undersigned counsel, Bates Numbered DA/TBI-000001 through DA/TBI-001212, regarding the agency's investigation into the activities of former judge, Richard Baumgartner, shall be made part of the record in each of the above named cases, and shall remain under seal pending further order of this Court.
2. The persons interviewed by the TBI, if called to testify, would testify in accordance and consistent with their previous statements to the TBI as reflected in the TBI's investigatory file.
3. The above referenced TBI file is admissible at the defendants' motion for new trial hearings and shall be considered as evidence by the Court in determining the defendants' respective motions for new trial.
4. The State of Tennessee reserves the right to object to the admission of specific portions of witnesses['] statements contained within the TBI file on the grounds that they are hearsay, opinion, conclusion, or on grounds of relevance.
5. The Defendants will enumerate, including Bates number, the portions of the TBI file that they intend to introduce pursuant to this stipulation on or before September 30, 2011, and the State agrees to raise any objections to the admission of the enumerated portions of the TBI file, including the associated Bates number, on or [b]efore October 28, 2011, so as to permit the Court to resolve any objection prior to the evidentiary hearing.

Consistent with the terms of paragraph five of the Joint Stipulation, on September 22, 2011, Defendant Thomas gave notice of twenty-seven portions of the TBI file, over 130 pages, which he intended to introduce at the hearing on his motion for new trial. The State filed a response containing its objections to the admissibility of some of the identified portions.

On December 1, 2011, Judge Blackwood held a second hearing where each Defendant made the twenty-seven portions of the TBI file that were identified by Defendant Thomas sealed exhibits in their respective cases. The State made an exhibit of its objections to the twenty-seven portions of the TBI file. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial judge entered its own redacted ("Exhibit 5") and unredacted ("Exhibit 6") versions of the TBI file as exhibits in each of the Defendants' cases.

Judge Blackwood granted the Defendants new trials, finding that the misconduct by the original trial judge constituted structural constitutional error. During its oral ruling, the court extensively detailed the criminal activities of the original trial judge as contained in the redacted TBI file. After concluding its ruling, the court then provided the following explanation:

The housekeeping measures I'm addressing at this time is that the next numbered exhibit [Exhibit 5] to this case will be the TBI file that the court relied upon in its finding of facts and conclusions of law. This is a redacted copy, because there are certain portions in this copy that the Court has redacted because the information contained in there has no business being in the public domain and is not relevant at all to any of the issues that are pertinent to this case.
The next numbered exhibit [Exhibit 6] in this case will also be the unredacted copy of the exhibit that I just mentioned. This one's being filed under seal because it is the exact copy of the TBI file that the Court relied upon, however it does not contain the redactions, and it's being marked for identification purposes only as the next numbered exhibit in case there is any appellate review that might be necessary.
The next order of housekeeping that we need to address is that there have been various motions filed and alluded to today by the defendants and as well as the state that deal with motions for new trial and various pleadings in this case. To the extent that there might still be any of those documents that are under seal, . . . the seal will be removed. The only document that's going to remain completely sealed in this case is the document that contains the entire TBI file. That document will remain under seal.

At the request of the prosecutor, the court agreed to leave the State's filed objections to the TBI file under seal. The court also clarified that it was leaving sealed all of the twenty-seven portions of the TBI file entered into evidence by the Defendants in addition to the unredacted portions of the TBI file that the court entered separately as Exhibit 6[1]

Granting the State's extraordinary appeal pursuant to Rule 10 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the trial court's ruling based on legal error and remanded for reconsideration of the motions for new trial. On remand, Judge Blackwood again granted new trials to the Defendants. The State filed a motion to recuse Judge Blackwood, which this Court granted on appeal. See State v. Letalvis Cobbins, No. E2012-02025-CCA-10B-DD, 2012 WL 5266427, at *23 (Tenn. Crim. App. Oct. 25, 2012), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Feb. 12, 2013). Senior Judge Walter Kurtz was then appointed as the new successor judge for Defendants Cobbins, Davidson, and Thomas. As the thirteenth juror, he approved the convictions of Defendants Cobbins and Davidson and denied their motions for new trial. Judge Kurtz granted Defendant Thomas's motion for new trial.[2]

During the retrial of Defendant Thomas, on May 2, 2013, Petitioners, the respective parents of the victims in the underlying criminal proceedings, filed a pleading titled "Petition to Intervene for Access to Court Records, " seeking access to the TBI file ("Exhibit 6") filed under seal on December 1, 2011, during the hearing on the motions for new trial. The TBI filed a response opposing Petitioners' intervention and right to access the TBI file. After a hearing on July 2, 2013, and several additional filings by the parties, the trial court entered a memorandum and order on July 19, 2013, granting ...


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