KNOXVILLE – The gates of Tennessee’s only death row prison opened wide for Lemaricus Davidson tonight, hours after a Knox County jury sentenced him to die for his role as the ringleader in the January 2007 carjacking, torture and killings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom.
Davidson arrived at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution’s Unit 2 in Nashville around 6 p.m. local time, said Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Correction. He’ll spend 23 hours per day alone in his cell every day, with just one hour of daylight in a caged yard.
That status won’t change for at least 18 months, Carter said. Depending on his behavior, Davidson could eventually be upgraded to allow occasional phone calls or the chance to apply for inmate jobs such as cleaning, she said.
“Regardless of their status, they don’t ever leave that building,” she said.
The jury of five women and seven men deliberated about four hours before returning its decision this afternoon to a packed courtroom.
“The punishment is death,” the jury foreman said.
The victims’ families gasped at the verdict, but Davidson showed no reaction. Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner admonished those in the courtroom to control any outburst.
“The murder was especially heinous, atrocious and cruel,” the foreman said, reading from the verdict form.
Davidson, 28, most likely will be taken to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville where death row is housed. Some male inmates, however, are incarcerated at Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg for security reasons. Two inmates with the death penalty are currently housed at that prison.
The jurors this morning heard closing arguments in the penalty phase of this 11-day trial before getting a final round of legal instructions from Baumgartner.
Prosecutor Takisha Fitzgerald told jurors Davidson killed Christian, 21, a University of Tennessee student and her boyfriend Newsom, 23, to save his own neck.
“The only thing Chris had left was the knowledge of who his attacker was,” Fitzgerald said. “(Davidson) took everything else. The only thing (Channon) had left was the knowledge of who her attacker was.”
Defense attorney Doug Trant asked jurors to spare Davidson’s life, noting the abuse he suffered and the foster parents who still love him.
“I’m going to ask you to spare Lemaricus Davidson’s life,” he said. “I’m going to ask you to do it for that little boy who was sexually abused … I’m going to ask you to do it for that little boy who was whipped by extension cords and paperweights.”
The jury, chosen from Knox County at Davidson’s insistence, considered death by lethal injection, life without parole or life, a mandatory 51-year sentence.
Davidson’s brother, Letalvis Cobbins, 26, was convicted in August and is serving life without parole. He is in a protective safety unit away from the general population at a West Tennessee prison after expressing fears for his safety.
Pending trial are suspects George Thomas, 26, who will face a Hamilton County jury Dec. 1, and Vanessa Coleman, 21, whose case is on hold pending a pre-trial appeal.
A fifth suspect, Eric Boyd, 37, remains uncharged in the killings but is serving an 18-year federal prison term for hiding out Davidson after the slayings.
Davidson is the first defendant from Knox County to be sent to death row since 1997. Executions in Tennessee are carried out by lethal injection.
Dennis Suttles, 57, was convicted of first-degree murder for cutting the throat of a woman in a fast-food parking lot in 1996.
Death row currently has 89 inmates, six from Knox County. All but two of the inmates are men.
The female inmates are housed at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville. One of those is Christa Gail Pike, 33, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for the torture-slaying of Colleen Slemmer, then a fellow 19-year-old Job Corps student.
On Thursday, two women who offered Davidson a better life as a teenager asked the jury to spare his life.
Foster mother Flo Rudd and group home mother Alice Rhea told jurors Davidson was worth saving despite the fact that he turned to robbery and, ultimately, murder despite their efforts to rescue him from a troubled upbringing.
“He’s my son,” Rhea said. “I love him. He has such potential. If you put him in a structured environment, he does everything he should. I think he can be an influence to young men for years to come.”
The defense called 11 witnesses on Thursday on Davidson’s behalf in the wake of his convictions.
Jurors on Wednesday deemed him guilty of the top count in 35 of 38 charges, ranging from the murder of both Christian and Newsom to kidnapping to robbery. They also found Davidson guilty of multiple counts of raping Christian.
Davidson’s only reprieve – and it was largely irrelevant because of the murder convictions – came in the rape of Newsom. With no DNA evidence to directly link him to a rape that forensic evidence suggested was committed with an object, jurors opted for convictions of the lesser charge of facilitation of aggravated rape.
He will be sentenced at a later date on those charges.
Davidson chose not to testify in his own behalf either during the trial or sentencing phase.
The victims were white and all four defendants are black, and that raised some racial tension, including a protest in Knoxville.
A lot was made of race on the Internet, but prosecutors and police have said race was not a factor, contending the carjacking that led to their deaths was random.