The community owes a lot of gratitude to Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols, who will retire in August after 22 years of distinguished public service.
As the longest-serving district attorney in the county’s history, the 66-year-old Nichols has presided over countless criminal prosecutions, including both the most bizarre and the most sordid murder trials that Knoxville has probably ever witnessed. But his contributions to the community go far beyond his role in dispensing criminal justice.
In what, to me, was a singular accomplishment, he successfully fought the political establishment to block construction of a new $90 million downtown jail and sheriff’s headquarters. In doing so, he preserved its prospective State Street site for inclusion in what was then (in the late 1990s) downtown’s nascent renaissance.
The monstrous jail, championed by then Sheriff Tim Hutchison, was just the most overblown element of grandiose plans for a Justice Center, including a new court complex for which County Commission had also acquired the block of Gay Street that’s now anchored by the Regal Riviera cinema. At meeting after meeting, Nichols vehemently insisted that none of the above was needed, and time has vindicated his conclusion.
“Nobody’s saying we need more courtrooms or more judges now,” Nichols observes in a recent interview. “In fact, we’ve got too many judges in relation to the dockets.” As for more jail space, a 200-bed addition to the Detention Facility in East Knox County at a cost of $13 million has obviated what had been an overcrowding problem at the 215-bed jail that still resides in the bowels of the City County Building. And the sheriff’s offices also still fit there quite comfortably.
Ask Nichols what he considers to be his biggest accomplishment, and he’s quick to respond, “The high quality of our professional staff. I’m so very proud of that.” The attorney general’s office includes 38 lawyers and a total staff of 87 people, which makes it the largest law office in Knoxville, he believes, with a $28 million budget.
The office currently has about 3,200 cases pending, but only about 100 cases a year ever go to trial, Nichols says. “Ninety-nine percent of the people we charge plead guilty. Very few people want a trial.”
The two cases for which Nichols may be most remembered, though, involved not only trials but retrials and appeals with numerous twists and turns. One that arose soon after Nichols took office but stuck around for more than a decade was the prosecution of Knoxville’s only known serial killer, Thomas “Zoo Man” Huskey. The other case that occupied his later years was the horrific 2007 murders of a young couple, Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, for which three men and a female accomplice were eventually convicted.
Huskey was dubbed “Zoo Man” by prostitutes whom he frequented because he worked as an elephant handler at the Knoxville Zoo. In the fall of 1992, Huskey was charged with murdering four of them and raping several others. Nichols opted to prosecute the rape cases first “so I could use the verdicts of violence for the death penalty aspect of the murder trial.” Nichols gained four rape convictions. But amid an extravaganza of maneuvering on the part of Huskey’s court-appointed defense attorneys, Greg Isaacs and Herbert Moncier, it took until 1999 to bring the murder charges to trial.
Isaacs’ and Moncier’s insanity defense rested heavily on the contention that Huskey suffered from multiple personality disorder, and they sought to have yet more lawyers appointed to represent his different personas. The jurors were unanimous that Huskey killed the women but were divided on whether he was sane. Nichols’ efforts to retry him were eventually undermined when an appeals court ruled that much of the evidence against Huskey had been improperly obtained by the arresting officers. So having served a requisite 30 percent of his rape sentence, Huskey is now entitled to seek parole, which Nichols will oppose.
“I have written a letter to the parole board stating that I believe him to be the most violent, dangerous man I’ve ever encountered,” Nichols says. “There is no doubt in my mind that if he were ever to receive his freedom, there are some women at risk because I believe he will kill again.”
Initial convictions of the four defendants in the Christian-Newsom murder cases were followed by revelations that the trial judge, Richard Baumgartner, was addicted to prescription pain killers whose excessive use included obtaining them illegally. That prompted Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood on Dec. 1, 2011, to rule that the defendants were entitled to new trials on grounds that Baumgartner had been impaired. And his ruling cast doubt on every other conviction in Baumgartner’s court over the previous three years.
“That was one of the darkest days of my life,” Nichols recalls. “I had 109 cases that were in jeopardy, and a lot of them were child sex cases where we faced having to put a child back through that ordeal again.” But after “expending a lot of energy,” Nichols managed to get the number of retrials reduced to four, three of which sustained convictions and one of which is still pending.
Nichols also managed to get Blackwood, with whom he clashed repeatedly, removed from the Christian-Newsom cases. The judge named to succeed him sustained the verdicts of the two defendants who were convicted by forensic evidence, and the other two have been retried and convicted once again.
While criminal prosecution has been his primary responsibility, Nichols has also made his mark in many other ways. Extensive efforts to reduce school truancy and to promote treatment for alcohol and drug addiction head the list.