by Hans Bader
Some juries are indulgent towards even the most vicious and plainly-guilty criminal. A Nashville jury just let a nightmarishly-evil torturer-murderer-rapist, Letalvis Cobbins, escape the death penalty in the rapes, torture, mutilation, and murders of Christopher Newsom and Channon Christian. Now, he can spend the rest of his life raping and preying on vulnerable prison inmates, like first-time offenders.
The jurors who blocked the death penalty may have mistakenly believed that they were being sophisticated and progressive by rejecting the death penalty, but in truth, they were being cruel, since, as it says in Midrash, he who is kind to the cruel is cruel to the kind. Scholars like Ernest Van Den Haag have found that the death penalty actually saves lives by deterring murder. (A recent Emory University study says that each execution deters approximately 18 murders). When I was a young liberal, I used to oppose the death penalty, in part because I was arrogant and it made me feel morally superior to those who support it based on “gut instinct.” But “gut instincts,” such as indignation, are important guides to what is right and wrong. As the great Athenian lawgiver Solon noted, true justice will not be achieved until those who have not been victimized by crime are just as indignant as those who have been.
The horrifying facts of the case are reprinted below; if you are squeamish, don’t read further. I describe them in order to explain why it is an insult to justice to give a torturer-rapist-murderer like Letalvis Cobbins the same sentence that many ordinary murderers receive:
“On Saturday January 6, 2007 Hugh Christopher Newsom, age 23 and Channon Gail Christian, age 21, both students at the University of Tennessee went out on a date. They were driving in Channon’s Toyota 4-Runner when they were carjacked at gunpoint. Suddenly the crime turned far more savage than an armed car theft. Chris and Channon were kidnapped and driven to 2316 Chipman Street where they were forced into the home at gunpoint. While Channon was forced to watch, her boyfriend was raped prison style and then his penis was cut off. He was later driven to nearby railroad tracks where he was shot and set afire. But Channon’s hell was just beginning. She was beaten; gang raped repeatedly in many ways, had one of her breasts cut off and bleach poured down her throat to destroy DNA evidence-all while she was still alive. To add to Channon’s degradation the suspects took turns urinating on her. They too set her body afire, apparently inside the residence, but for some reason left her body there-in five separate trash bags.”
“Christian suffered horrific injuries to her vagina, anus and mouth. She was not only raped but savaged with ‘an object,’ possibly a broken chair leg, the doctor testified.”
Yet the defense attorneys for Letalvis Cobbins, one of the five people who perpetrated these atrocities, think that he can be rehabilitated, and will not pose a risk to others in the future. Do you agree? I don’t. If I were a first-time prison inmate, in for something like drug possession, I would be scared to death by this vicious criminal’s presence.
Some have speculated that the jurors refused to impose the death penalty out of racial favoritism, and that some on the “racially-diverse” jury may have had difficulty empathizing with the victims, who were white. When a Brooklyn jury acquitted the killer of Yankel Rosenbaum, who died in the 1991 anti-semitic riots in Crown Heights, commentators suggested that race similarly played a role in the black defendant’s acquittal, citing the seemingly “airtight” evidence against defendant Lemrick Nelson, who had been identified by the dying Rosenbaum as his killer. If the race of the victims and perpetrators in this case had been switched, the ensuing media coverage would have dwarfed the Duke Lacrosse case.
The crime didn’t happen in Nashville (Davidson County), where the jury was chosen. The case was moved there, rather than to a less pro-defendant venue closer to whether the crime actually occurred, by presiding Judge Richard Baumgartner, a liberal Democrat. His excuse was that the case needed to be moved from Knoxville due to adverse pre-trial publicity; but if so, that merely justified a move, not a move to distant Nashville, 180 miles away. Tennessee voters should ask why Baumgartner did this.