Are Dr.'s Botched Autopsies to Blame for Murder Convictions?

Medical examiner misidentified bodies, allowed dog in autopsy room, and more.

ByABC News
March 2, 2010, 7:06 PM

March 3, 2010— -- An inaccurate autopsy report nearly sealed James Suttle's fate. The 49-year-old entrepreneur from Pulaski, Tenn., was arrested for first-degree murder in 2001, in connection with the death of his cousin, Stevie Hobbs.

Though Suttle claimed his cousin had a seizure and fell on top of a glass table, the autopsy prepared by former medical examiner Dr. Charles Harlan said it was no accident; Hobbs had been stabbed to death.

According to Harlan's timeline, the wound was inflicted shortly before Hobbs' death, which pointed to Suttle -- the only person present at the time of Hobbs' death.

Harlan's testimony became the centerpiece of the prosecution's case against Suttle. The jury in the case seemed to believe Harlan, who had testified thousands of times in his 30-year career.

But unbeknownst to Suttle or his lawyers, as Harlan was providing expert testimonies on behalf of the state, he was also under investigation for incompetence by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Judge Jim Hamilton, who presided over the trial, and the prosecutors denied knowledge of the investigation. According to documents obtained by ABC News, Harlan originally came under suspicion as early as 1995.

Suttle might have been convicted, if not for the findings of forensic expert Dr. Bill Bass, who was skeptical of Harlan's analysis and attempted to recreate the path of the stab wound as described by Harlan.

CLICK HERE to read more about Suttle's case and Bass's experiment.

Bass discovered that what Harlan reported as having happened simply was not possible. A sharp instrument would have had to make a right-angle turn inside the body to get from the entry point on Hobbs' back to the site of the wound on the right lung, according to Bass.

"Physically, it cannot be done," he said. "I'm 100 percent, not 99 and 44/100ths percent, I'm 100 percent sure."

Bass's testimony exonerated Suttle and suddenly, Harlan was under scrutiny.

After Suttle's exoneration, rumors about Harlan's botched autopsies reached a boiling point and the medical examiner was brought up on charges of gross negligence by the Tennessee Medical Board, including 27 allegations of unprofessional conduct, fraud and negligence.