Image: Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom
AP
Channon Christian, right, and boyfriend Christopher Newsom, both of Knovxville, Tenn., were kidnapped, raped and slain in Knoxville in January 2007.
updated 8/17/2009 4:31:39 PM ET 2009-08-17T20:31:39

One of four people facing a possible death sentence in the carjacking, rape and murder of a young Tennessee couple was a "coward" who should have stopped the killings, his attorney said as his trial began Monday.

The attorney said, however, that Letalvis "Rome" Cobbins wasn't a killer. Cobbins, 26, of Lebanon, Ky., pleaded guilty to five counts of facilitating a robbery or theft and one count of rape as prosecutors formally read the 38 counts against him in the January 2007 abduction and torture deaths of Channon Christian, 21, and her boyfriend, Christopher Newsom, 23.

Cobbins pleaded not guilty to the other counts, including first-degree murder in the racially charged case. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty if he is convicted.

"This is a horrific crime and it makes us all angry," Cobbins' attorney Scott Green told the jury of seven women and five men brought from Davidson County, 150 miles away, to avoid potential bias from pretrial publicity.

Agitators cry reverse discrimination
The victims were white and middle class, and the defendants are poor and black. Some conservative Internet commentators and white supremacist agitators accused the national media of reverse discrimination by failing to give the case the same attention paid to white-on-black hate crimes.

But prosecutors and law enforcement officials say the murders were the result of a simple carjacking of Christian's 2005 Toyota SUV that went terribly awry. The victims were dead within a day of being jumped in an apartment parking lot at gunpoint.

Still, the sequestered jury is racially diverse, with four whites, seven blacks and one Asian.

"You are not going to like Letalvis Cobbins and you shouldn't," Green told the jury. "He is a coward and had he stood up to his brother, their (the Christians') daughter would probably be alive."

Green blames Cobbins' older brother and alleged ringleader Lemaricus Davidson, 28, and accomplice Eric Boyd. Davidson, who had just been released from a five-year prison sentence for carjacking in West Tennessee, is slated to be tried next month. Boyd was already convicted of helping Davidson hide after the crime and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Cobbins' friend George Thomas, 26, and girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 21, are the other defendants awaiting trial on murder counts.

Making choices
"This is a case about choices. Choices the defendant made that led to the deaths of these kids," Assistant District Attorney Takisha Fitzgerald told the jury.

She said Cobbins chose to participate in the carjacking, take the victims to Davidson's rundown rental house, rape Christian and lie about it afterward. She noted he gave police at least four different versions of what happened.

Fitzgerald said investigators found DNA from both Cobbins and Davidson on Christian's clothes and on her body. Newsom also was raped before he was shot three times and his body set on fire and dumped along nearby railroad tracks. Police found his body first, then Christian's in a garbage can in Davidson's house.

Newsom was a trim carpenter for a construction company. Christian was a senior at the University of Tennessee. They still lived at home and had been dating for two to three months.

Ultimately, the object was "the pleasure they got from that girl," Fitzgerald said. "(And) you can't enjoy the girl until you get rid of the guy."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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