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

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

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.

Harlan's Grievous Errors Emerge

"It was tough to go through some of those things," said Bob O'Connell, the prosecutor in the hearing against Harlan. "It was tough as an attorney and as a human being, for me, to look at the pictures and to think about what happened."

Among the unbelievable charges raised against Harlan was the misidentification of a dead body Harlan said belonged to escaped convict Bruce Allan Littleton. But the criminal was found alive two years later, in connection with another crime.

Harlan also determined that two children died of SIDS, but both were later found to have been murdered by a parent. He said another child died of natural causes, but the 10-year-old weighed only 18 pounds at death.

"How you can draw the conclusion that this child had not been neglected is unfathomable to me," O'Connell said.

During an autopsy in an important murder case, Harlan allowed his pet dog access to the autopsy room with devastating results.

"It was apparent at some point that the dog consumed some of the remains of human beings," O'Connell said. "It's that kind of detail in this case that gives me the shivers to this day. ... I mean, this man was allegedly a scientist."

In some cases, Harlan's testimony was less critical; eye-witnesses, DNA evidence or a confession corroborated his reports. But Maddy deLone of The Innocence Project said she doesn't understand why the state of Tennessee did not review all of Harlan's cases.

"That's just putting your head in the sand and not wanting to understand the full implication of the problem," deLone said. "There is no reason to believe that somebody who is capable of these acts that are clearly negligent isn't capable of more of them."

Could there be other wrongly accused persons in jail because of mistakes made by Harlan during his 30-year career?

Inmates on Death Row: Is Harlan to Blame?

James Dellinger and Gary Sutton have been on Tennessee's death row since 1996 based, in part, on Harlan's testimony. Police say they killed their friend Tommy Griffin with a shotgun in 1992.

"There're no fingerprints; they found no ballistics," said F.D. Gibson, former defense lawyer for Sutton.

The prosecution's case hinged on the murder occurring on Friday night right after Dellinger and Sutton bailed Griffin out of jail. But when the body was discovered three days later, the wound seemed fresh, according to first responders.

"If the body had been dead three days, [the blood] would be dried up and caked," Gibson said.

According to EMS workers, the body was also in full rigor mortis.

"He was so stiff, they couldn't even get him on a stretcher," Gibson said.

Rigor mortis is a stiffening of the body that begins about eight hours after death and gradually fades.

"It runs for 24 hours, maybe 18 hours, something like that, and then it begins to fade away," Bass said.

For defense lawyers, the fact that Griffin was still in full rigor mortis 72 hours after he was supposed to have been killed seemed to exonerate their clients. A forensic expert for the defense testified that there was no way Griffin was killed on Friday because rigor mortis should've been completely gone 36 hours after his death.

When the defense rested, the attorneys were confident their clients would be exonerated. That night, according to defense lawyers, the prosecutors renewed a previous offer: a reduced sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Dellinger and Sutton faced the death penalty, but they would not take the plea deal. They told their lawyers they were innocent.

Surprise Witness: Harlan Called to Stand

The next day, Harlan, a surprise witness, took the stand, and testified that full rigor mortis can last for 72 hours and that the blood on a three-day-old body could still be bright red and wet to the touch.

On Sept. 4, 1996, Sutton and Dellinger were sentenced to death.

It would turn out later that Harlan was already under investigation by the TBI for incompetence, but the defendants and their legal team were not aware.

"Under the laws, they should have told us, because they're presenting this man as an expert witness and if he is under investigation and has, in fact, been fired for incompetence, that would certainly undermine his credibility," Gibson said.

The district attorney in the case denied knowledge of the investigation into Harlan's practices.

Harlan was ultimately found guilty of 18 charges of incompetence and negligence in 2005 and finally stripped of his license.

Watch "20/20" Friday at 9 p.m. ET to see what happens when Harlan is confronted on camera.

Although Harlan wouldn't comment on this specific case, he maintains that his testimony in the case -- that 72 hours after a person dies, the body could still be in full rigor mortis -- was correct.

Last month, three different experts testified that Harlan's testimony about rigor mortis in this case was not medically possible.

Dr. Bruce Levy, the current medical examiner of Tennessee, said rigor mortis can be affected by outside temperature, which would have made it medically possible that Griffin's murder took place three days before the body was found.

"The problem is there is no mathematical formula to plug in and come out with an exact number," Levy said. But he qualified his statement: "If I were just going to base a conviction on when I thought the time of death might be, I'd be very nervous about doing that."

Could Dellinger and Sutton be innocent? According to their former lawyers, they deserve a new trial so a jury can decide.

New lawyers for Sutton and Dellinger are currently appealing the death penalty conviction. A judge is expected to rule on their request for a new trial in the next three months.

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