KNOXVILLE - Bloggers and media critics are complaining that the national media have ignored the rape and murder of a young Knoxville couple because of the racial implications of the story.
Channon Christian, a 21-year-old University of Tennessee student, and her boyfriend, Christopher Newsom, 23, were raped, tortured and killed in January. Separate trial dates were set Thursday for four people charged in the slayings.
Online critics have angrily insisted that reporters are ignoring the story because the victims are white and the defendants are black.
"I am not going to call it reverse racism," said country singer Charlie Daniels, who has written on his Web page about how little he has heard of the case in Nashville, about 150 miles west of Knoxville. "But I will say it is very selective (journalism).
"There are probably not five stories in the country that could possibly have been more important than that one during the time it was going on," he said. "It is totally, completely unfair to the memory of these young people not to inform people about what happened to them."
The Associated Press and local media in Knoxville have covered the case regularly since the bodies were found, but it has received scant attention from other media outlets.
Christian and Newsom were last seen Jan. 6. Authorities have refused to say where they were carjacked and have suggested the attack was random.
Newsom's burned body was found the next day along some railroad tracks, and Christian's body was found two days later a short distance away in a trash can. Both had been sexually assaulted.
Web sites describe gruesome details that are not in the public record.
Lemaricus Davidson, 25; his brother, Letalvis Cobbins, 24; and George Thomas, 24, were indicted on 46 counts, including first-degree murder. Cobbins' former girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 18, was indicted on 40 counts, also including murder. Some have implicated others in statements to police, but it remains unclear what prompted the crimes.
"It was certainly a very vicious crime, and we are treating it accordingly," said Knoxville Police Chief Sterling Owen.
Knox County Judge Richard Baumgartner on Thursday set anticipated two-week trials for each of them in 2008, beginning with Cobbins on May 12, Coleman on June 16, Davidson on July 14 and Thomas on Aug. 11.
Prosecutors have yet to say if they will seek the death penalty.
A fifth defendant, Eric Boyd, 34, is being held on a federal charge of being an accessory after the fact for allegedly helping Davidson. No state charges have been filed against him.
More than a dozen family members and friends of victims filled two rows of the courtroom Thursday, intently listening to the proceedings. None would talk later to reporters.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys also declined comment, though one defense attorney said that continued rumors about rallies against "black-on-white crime" might raise concerns of tainting a jury pool and the need to move the trial.
"We've seen fliers and postings on Internet sites," Mayor Bill Haslam said of possible demonstrations in coming weeks. "We don't know if it is a small number of people or large, but we will be prepared one way or another. We treat them seriously."
One organization identified only as the "ABC Group" applied for a parade permit for June 16. The police chief said other actions may be held Saturday and May 26.
Knoxville NAACP President Ezra Maize has been meeting with city and police officials. "We don't want to add fuel to the fire. Our goal is simply to keep the peace," he said.
"Whether it is black, white or Hispanic, there is no way in the world you cannot view what has taken place and not feel remorse for the families," Maize said. "At the same time, you cannot cast judgment as to who did it or who did not do it. That is not our place." Angry bloggers have drawn comparisons to the Duke lacrosse rape case and wondered why the Newsom-Christian slaying hasn't gotten the same media attention. "Oh, that's right, the victims were WHITE!" wrote one. Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who operates Instapundit, a top current events and commentary blog, said he was branded an apologist by those bloggers after he wrote that he had seen no evidence the killings were a hate crime. However, he said, "I think it is totally true if the races of the perpetrators and the victims were reversed, the press would make a bigger deal about it. I think some people (journalists) have been hanging back for fear of inflaming things." Ted Gest, president of the Criminal Justice Journalists group, a national organization of journalists who cover crime, court and prison beats, said interracial crime tends to get more coverage than when the criminal and victim are of the same race. "But I can't say that this one would have had any more coverage if five whites had been accused of doing these things to two blacks, absent a blatant racial motive," he said. "As bad as this crime is, the apparent absence of any interest group involvement or any other ‘angle' might also explain the lack of coverage."