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Originally published June 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 11, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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When hate crime is not a black and white issue

What happened to Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, a young Knoxville couple out on an ordinary Saturday night date, was undeniably...

Chicago Tribune

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — What happened to Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, a young Knoxville couple out on an ordinary Saturday night date, was undeniably brutal. The pair were carjacked, kidnapped, raped and finally murdered during an ordeal of unimaginable terror last January.

But whether the attack was a racial hate crime worthy of national media attention is another question, one that has now ignited a fierce dispute over the definition of hate crimes and how the mainstream media choose to cover interracial attacks.

That's because the murders of Christian and Newsom didn't fit the familiar contours of a traditional Old South attack, in which whites target blacks and reporters quickly assume the motivation must have been racial.

Instead, the races were reversed: Christian and Newsom were white; the three men and one woman charged with their murders are black. And the consequent failure of the story to gain much media attention outside of the Knoxville area has galvanized conservative commentators across the country, who insist the case offers clear evidence of liberal bias in the major media.

They have launched a broad Internet campaign, waged via blogs, e-mails and YouTube videos, to counter what they regard as suppression of a story about an anti-white hate crime.

"There is a discomfort level [in the national media] with stories that have black assailants and white victims," said Michelle Malkin, a prominent conservative newspaper columnist and TV commentator who has featured the Knoxville case on her Web site. "If it doesn't fit some sort of predetermined narrative of how we view taboo subjects like race and crime, there's a disinclination to cover it."

Country-music star Charlie Daniels, who lives 150 miles from Knoxville, contrasted scant coverage of the Christian-Newsom murders with the national media frenzy that erupted last year when a black woman accused three white members of the Duke University lacrosse team of raping her at a party. The white players were cleared in April after the accuser changed her story several times and no evidence corroborated a crime.

"If this [Knoxville case] had been white on black crime, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and their ilk would have descended on Knoxville like a swarm of angry bees," Daniels wrote on his Web site.

Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists have jumped on the case as well, drawn to the state where the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865. Hate groups have organized rallies in Knoxville and set up Web sites under the victims' names to spew racial invective.

But it's not just conservative whites and extremists who have criticized the national silence over the Knoxville case.

"Black leaders are not eager to take this on because it's one more thing that would cast a negative light on African Americans," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and nationally syndicated black columnist who has written frequently about the reluctance of black leaders to denounce crimes committed by blacks against whites. "There's already an ancient stereotype that blacks are more violent and crime-prone anyway."

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The Rev. Ezra Maize, president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP, has been one of the few black leaders to address the case.

"It doesn't make me uncomfortable speaking out against this crime because it was African Americans [allegedly] committing a crime against Caucasians," Maize said. "It's not a black and white issue. It's a right and wrong issue. Those who committed this crime were unjust in doing so and they should pay the penalty."

The murders of Newsom and Christian have proved so resonant because they play into some of the deepest fears of urban crime harbored by many Americans. By all the accounts of authorities, the couple — Newsom, 23, was a talented carpenter and former high-school baseball star; Christian, 21, was a senior at the University of Tennessee — fell victim to a random carjacking last Jan. 6 in the parking lot of an apartment complex where they had gone to visit friends.

Authorities say the couple's assailants, some of them ex-convicts, forced their victims to drive at gunpoint to a clapboard house in one of Knoxville's roughest neighborhoods, where both victims were first raped and then killed. Newsom's body, shot and burned, was found dumped beside nearby railroad tracks, while Christian, who was strangled, was found bundled in plastic garbage bags inside the house.

State prosecutors have lodged murder, rape and other charges against brothers Lemaricus Davidson, 25, and Letalvis Cobbins, 24; Cobbins' girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 18; and George Thomas, 24. Their trials are set for next year, and officials have not yet said whether they will seek the death penalty. A fifth suspect was charged in federal court as an accessory.

Yet as brutal as the crime was, Knoxville authorities have strongly denied that it was racially motivated. And they have sought to correct rumors, eagerly spread by white supremacist Web sites, that the couple had been sexually mutilated before they were killed and their bodies dismembered afterward.

"There is absolutely no proof of a hate crime," said John Gill, special counsel to Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols. "It was a terrible crime, a horrendous crime, but race was not a motive. We know from our investigation that the people charged in this case were friends with white people, socialized with white people, dated white people. So not only is there no evidence of any racial animus, there's evidence to the contrary."

Official hate crime or not, most conservative critics say the Knoxville case illustrates what they call the general reluctance of the mainstream media to report black-on-white crimes. As examples, many cite a 1999 incident in North Charleston, S.C., in which seven black youths attacked two white bicyclists riding through their neighborhood, leaving one permanently disabled; a 2000 mass-murder case in Wichita, Kan., in which two black brothers kidnapped and killed four white victims; and an attack last year in Long Beach, Calif., in which 11 black teenagers attacked and severely beat three young white women.

Only the Long Beach case was charged by local authorities as a hate crime, and none of the stories drew sustained national attention.

"You've seen a lot of people with impeccable credentials making the point that the press does play up white-on-black crime and play down black-on-white crime," said Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who publishes political and media commentaries on his widely read Instapundit blog. "I think it's a fair criticism. And it just empowers the crazies when the mainstream media soft-pedals this stuff."

In reality, statistics from the FBI and the Justice Department offer a decidedly mixed picture of crime and race in America.

On the one hand, African Americans bear the brunt of violent crime in the U.S.: In 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to fall victim to serious violent crime, most often at the hands of other blacks.

Blacks are also the overwhelming majority of victims of attacks officially recorded by the FBI as hate crimes. In 2005, blacks were the victims in 68 percent of nearly 5,000 hate-crime incidents nationwide, while whites were the victims in 20 percent of the cases. Whites accounted for 60 percent of known hate-crime offenders, while blacks accounted for 20 percent.

But on the other hand, when overall cross-racial violent crimes are tabulated — including incidents not formally classified as racially motivated hate crimes — Justice Department statistics show that blacks attack whites far more often than whites attack blacks.

In 2005, there were more than 645,000 victims of cross-racial violent crimes between blacks and whites in the U.S. In 90 percent of those crimes, black offenders attacked white victims.

"In the old days," said Hutchinson, contemplating that statistic, "when you said 'hate crimes,' it was automatic — whites victimizing blacks. Today you have to pause for a minute and not make automatic assumptions."

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