Man Accused of Medically Impossible Murder

Police said James Suttle was guilty, but experiment shows crime was impossible.

March 1, 2010, 7:06 PM

March 2, 2010— -- When James Suttle was arrested for first-degree murder in January 2001, it was a dramatic turnaround for a man who until that moment seemed to be living a golden life.

Suttle left the town of Pulaski, Tenn., as a teenager and headed to Las Vegas, where he became a high-stakes professional gambler and entrepreneur. He hadn't been back to Pulaski in nearly 20 years, but he returned in part to see his cousin Stevie Hobbs.

"Me and Stevie were inseparable," Suttle, 49, said.

But during his October 1998 visit, Suttle was awakened by Hobbs, who rushed into his bedroom and appeared to be having some kind of attack.

"The first thing I remember was him trying to call my name," Suttle said. "He couldn't get my whole name out."

Suttle said his cousin had his hands in the air and spun in a full circle, before ultimately falling backward on top of a glass coffee table. When the table broke, one of the shards of glass entered Hobbs' back, apparently killing him.

Suttle called 911. But over the next few days, Suttle said he sensed police didn't believe his story.

"I could tell that they were trying to pin this off on me as a murder," he said.

When Suttle called his ex-wife Jacqueline Wernet and their daughter Jameline, Jacqueline was shocked.

"I couldn't believe it because I know how much he loves Stevie," said Wernet.

"My dad and Steve were so close," said Suttle's daughter, Jameline. "He was like an uncle to me, a brother to my dad."

Despite the close relationship between Hobbs and Suttle, Pulaski, Tenn., prosecutor Richard Dunavant said the case against Suttle kept escalating.

Suttle took a shower soon after his cousin's death, potentially washing off evidence before police could examine him.

Suttle's 911 call also raised eyebrows when he yelled: "Stevie! The glass, the glass! Wait, wait. That's glass."

"If the defendant and the victim were the only two present at the time that telephone call was made, why would the defendant make a comment like, 'Wait wait that's glass?'" said Chief John Dickey.

Many in the small town of Pulaski believed Suttle was guilty, even some members of his own family. But it was medical examiner Dr. Charles Harlan who seemed to seal Suttle's fate.

Harlan laid out the critical timeline: The wound, he said, was inflicted shortly before death, and he testified that it was no accident. Hobbs didn't die from a seizure or even a shard of glass, but from deliberate murder.

In the autopsy report, Harlan wrote that the cause of death was a stab wound. "By examination of the wound," he said, "we were able to determine that the wound was caused by an instrument" similar to a pair of scissors.

Harlan said he had "absolutely no question in [his] mind" that it was murder.

"That changed the entire complexion of the case," said Judge Jim Hamilton, who presided over it. "You've got a homicide on your hands."

Suttle's Main Motive Believed to Be Money

For Dunavant, who was slowly putting together the prosecution's case over months and months, it was all adding up. "All of those things together pointed to the guilt of the defendant James Suttle," he said. "And there were simply no other suspects."

Suttle was arrested for first-degree murder on Jan. 23, 2001. With a means, motive and opportunity, the prosecution's case against Suttle seemed unassailable.

Suttle hired lawyers Paul Bruno and Kerry Haymaker, who unlike almost everyone in Pulaski didn't understand what reason he would have to kill his cousin.

The prosecution felt the main motive was money -- pointing to $300 Suttle admitted to taking from his cousin's pockets after his death -- but Suttle was well-positioned financially. He made money in Las Vegas and had recently sold a new type of video poker game he helped develop.

"It didn't make any sense," Haymaker said. "We're not talking about a lot of money."

During the trial, the prosecution attacked Suttle's character, according to juror Carla Cobbs Parr.

"The fact that he was a poker player, you know, he lived in Nevada, [they] presented him as a gambler … a runaround I guess," Parr said. "You go, hmm. Maybe depending on how deep into gambling he is, maybe there was something that just set him off."

Since Suttle was the only person present at the time of Hobbs' death, the dominating factor in the case was the medical examiner's report by Harlan, which said Hobbs had been stabbed.

Jurors seemed to believe Harlan -- by then a 30-year veteran who had testified thousands of times in his career.

Forensics Expert Comes to Suttle's Rescue

With the jury seemingly leaning toward convicting Suttle, retired forensics anthropologist Bill Bass's testimony turned the case upside down. The renowned forensics expert, who created a new specialty of criminology investigation and typically testified for the prosecution, said something about the autopsy in Suttle's case bothered him.

"I looked at the autopsy and what [medical examiner Dr. Charles Harlan] says in the autopsy happened could not happen, could not have happened," said Bass, referring to the alleged stabbing of Hobbs by Suttle. "But I don't like to make statements like 'You can't do this' unless I do a little research for it."

Bass is also the founder of the "body farm," a research facility located behind an unmarked gate in Knoxville, Tenn., where human bodies are left unburied so scientists can study what happens to them over time.

"I went out to the body farm and used one of the bodies that we'd just gotten in and did an incision in the back, on the left-hand side," he said.

Bass took a cadaver and a steel rod and tried to re-create the stab wound and the path of the stab wound as described by Harlan. The results of Bass's experiment completely contradicted Harlan's testimony.

"What happened was that Dr. Bass, from the University of Tennessee, basically impeached the testimony of Dr. Harlan," said Dunavant. "We were blindsided."

According to Bass, to get from the entry point on Hobbs' back to the site of the wound on the right lung, a sharp instrument would have had to make a right-angle turn inside the body -- a maneuver Bass was not able to make using the steel rod.

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

Bass and a forensics colleague had gone even further. They not only knew Suttle did not kill his cousin, they knew who did.

"About two weeks before he falls on the coffee table, [Hobbs] had been in a fight," said Bass. "They beat him up fairly bad. And when you look at the autopsy, there's a rib that is splintered in there. And this rib is jabbing into the back of the lung and [had] taken about two weeks to kill him."

Hobbs was literally a dead man walking, dying of injuries he sustained almost two weeks before his death. Doctors said if Hobbs had sought medical attention at any time in the days after that fight, he would still be alive today.

Suttle Exonerated by Medically Impossible Murder

Before the jury read the verdict, Haymaker recalled thinking: "If this jury's not going to return a not guilty on this case, then the whole system is just not worth anything. ... If there were ever a case where someone was innocent and it was clearly demonstrated to a jury, this is it."

A jury found Suttle not guilty. Suttle told "20/20" that the words "innocent until proven guilty" have taken on a new meaning for him.

"I've pretty much always felt the other way around, before this happened," said Suttle. "If you see somebody in court charged with a crime, the first thing you think is well, they're guilty or they wouldn't be sitting here. I mean why else would they have them up here in front of a jury? ... I look at it differently now than I did before because I know what can happen. It can happen to anyone. It happened to me."

How did things go so far? It would turn out that Harlan had been under investigation for years. The details are unbelievable.

Suttle believes there are still other innocent men in prison because of Harlan's testimonies.

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