McElroy: Cobbins case about overcoming racism
In the end, the Letalvis Cobbins case was about race but not in the way the racists tried to spin it.
It wasn’t about black against white. It was about black and white together, in crime and in justice.
Racial tension was the backdrop against which East Tennesseans watched the grim trial of the first of the four suspects charged in the torture slaying of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom.
When news of the crime first broke in early 2007, white supremacists pointed to it as a classic example of a black-on-white “hate crime.” They staged protests in Knoxville complaining that the national media wasn’t giving it coverage comparable to white-on-black incidents, such as the dubious Duke lacrosse case, which had been in the news.
But the protests have since fizzled, the people who tried to build the Duke case into a cause celebre have been repudiated, and this month, the Christian-Newsom case was shown to be more about good and evil than about black and white.
Evil was black, but it also was white. Good was white, but it also was black.
The “helpers” day of the trial shattered any illusion that the wrongdoers were strictly African-Americans motivated by racial hatred.
A parade of white witnesses revealed the Chipman Street house to be a interracial hub of lowlifes.
There was Vincent Wernimont, the drug dealer and prison buddy of Cobbins’ brother who helped the fleeing suspects find a place to stay and a ride out of town.
There was Jody Long, the addict who drove the suspects to hiding, and Stacy Lawson, Cobbins’ friend who knew all about his gun-toting.
And there was Daphne Sutton, girlfriend of Cobbins’ brother, who took Christian’s clothes away after the killings.
In the courtroom, white defense attorneys did their duty and vigorously defended the black suspect, while a champion of the shattered families of the victims was a black prosecutor.
The jury, drawn from Nashville, was a racial mix: four black women, two black men, one Asian man, three white men and two white women.
They served at great personal sacrifice, and despite their diversity, they had no problem getting their job done.
Their verdicts showed evidence of compromise. They convicted on the murder of Christian but not of Newsom, and they opted for a sentence of life without parole, the middle ground between death and life with possibility of parole.
Did race play a role in this case?
Of course, just as it continues to play a role in many areas of our society.
It undoubtedly was in the back of the minds of the thugs committing the crimes and of the investigators examining suspects. The lawyers took race into account as they planned their strategies and selected jurors, and the jury interpreted the evidence and weighed the families’ pleas through their own racial prisms.
But at no point was race the deciding factor.
Ultimately, this case was about getting beyond race to justice.
Some of the truly inhumane among us perpetrated an outrage, and decent humanity responded as best it could.
In the context of America’s struggle with a racial divide, color wasn’t really important, and for that we can be thankful.
Jack McElroy is editor of the News Sentinel. He may be reached at 865-342-6300, at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog, The Upfront Page at http://blogs.knoxnews.com.