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Did a disgraced Nashville medical examiner put an innocent man on death row?

Charles Harlan testified in the murder trial of Gary Wayne Sutton
Death Row Inmate WEB.jpg
Posted at 1:18 PM, May 11, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Did bogus testimony from a disgraced medical examiner put an innocent man on death row?

Attorneys for Gary Wayne Sutton worry he will be among the first to get an execution date when the state resumes executions.

Sutton's case has a close connection to disgraced Nashville medical examiner Charles Harlan, who had his license revoked back in 2005.

Harlan played a key role in Sutton's 1996 murder trial and other murder trials across the state.

Harlan died in 2013, but Sutton's attorneys argue his flawed testimony should not lead to Sutton's execution.

Sutton was arrested back in 1992 for the murder of Tommy Griffin. Griffin's body was found along the banks of the Little River in Blount County.

Days later Griffin's sister, Connie Branam, was also found dead - burned beyond recognition in her car.

It didn't take long for police to arrest Gary Wayne Sutton and his uncle James Dellinger.

Dellinger died early this year on death row, but Sutton remains there and has always maintained his innocence.

Longtime friend Carolyn Miller was with Sutton when he was arrested and is certain he is innocent.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Miller, "How can you be sure he did not do it?"

Miller responded, "Because I was with him that weekend."

Sutton's attorney Susanne Bales has been fighting for years to get him off death row.

"The judicial system makes mistakes sometimes and this is one of those mistakes," Bales said.

A key part of the prosecution's case in the 1996 murder trial was a timeline that included when Griffin died.

Tommy Griffin's body was discovered on a Monday morning, but prosecutors said he was murdered three days earlier on Friday night right after Sutton and his uncle bailed Griffin out of jail.

"The timeline required Mr. Griffin to have been dead for 64 hours," Bales said.

But when Griffin's body was discovered Monday morning, first responders said the gunshot wound seemed fresh and the body was in full rigor mortis.

"When first responders responded, the body was in rigor, and that's something that usually dissipates within a day," Bales said.

A former Blount County medical examiner, Dr. Wolfe, testified at trial that Griffin was likely dead only 24 to 36 hours which destroyed the prosecution's theory of what happened.

"There was a time when we came out of that courtroom, we thought he was coming home until Charles Harlan got up on the stand," Miller said.

Miller said the whole trial turned when prosecutors called Dr. Charles Harlan as a surprise witness.

"They had to have a timeline when Tommy got killed and Harlan gave them that timeline," Miller said.

Harlan told jurors Griffin was likely shot on Friday night.

He never examined the body and said he made his determination based on slides of organs.

"They prepped Dr. Harlan to give this testimony that perfectly gave the state what they needed to make their case," Bales said.

Knox County's current medical examiner, Dr. Mileusnic-Pochan has since testified determining death based on slides of organs is "not the recognized science."

"She found the specific way Dr. Harlan did this is scientifically impossible," Bales said.

But jurors seemed to believe it based in part on the fact prosecutors touted Harlan as the state's chief medical examiner.

"Dr. Harlan testified that he was the state's chief medical examiner even though he had been fired from that position," Bales said.

Prosecutors have said they did not know Harlan was under investigation by the TBI for incompetence when he testified at the 1996 trial.

In fact, when he testified, he'd been banned from the TBI crime lab.

NewsChannel 5 did several stories on bizarre situations involving Harlan.

In 2005, Sherry Rigsby rented a Crieve Hall home once owned by the former medical examiner - part of the deal was to clean out some old boxes.

"We were going through boxes, and I picked up papers and found autopsy reports," Rigsby said in 2005.

She called the current Davidson County medical examiner at the time - Bruce Levy - who said they were from cases in the late 80s and early 90s.

Harlan later said they were left in the home by his wife.

The state board of medical examiners finally ended Harlan's 33-year career in 2005.

They cited numerous bungled autopsies and revoked his medical license.

"I think it should be noted that this case has a pattern of continued or repeated negligence or incompetence," said one board member at the 2005 hearing.

Harlan's defense attorney argued that revoking his license could impact many of the murder convictions in which Harlan testified.

"A finding of incompetence could affect all of the criminal convictions in which he has testified in the last few years," said Harlan's attorney Dan Warlick in 2005.

And in fact, some people have gotten new trials, but Gary Sutton has not.

"It's very difficult to get a federal court to intervene and overturn a state conviction," Bales said.

Sutton had one execution date set and attorneys fear he will get a new date if Tennessee resumes executions.

"He didn't do this. There's an innocent man that's sitting on death row that's getting to be executed for a crime he didn't do," Miller said.

The Attorney General has maintained in numerous court filings that Sutton's conviction was appropriate.

We attempted to reach the family of Tommy Griffin and Connie Branam on multiple occasions.

After the story was published online, the sister of Griffin and Branam reached out and said she believes Sutton is guilty.

Stella Whitted said after all these years, she doubts Sutton will ever be executed, but she added that she believes he should be put to death for the crime.