The Leonard Hutchison and James Harper Story

Injustice carries the day in Tennessee courts

Trial court judge tries to do right; appellate judges won't let him

Technicalities win the day for irresponsible prosecutor


The story of Leonard Hutchison and James Harper is tragic for what it has done to them and their families, but it is even more tragic for what it says about our government. Blind obedience to unjust rules counts more to judges than justice. A judge who tries to act justly will be slapped down. A prosecutor who wins will fight with all his strength to maintain that win, without regard to justice. Such is the state of American life in 1998. This case came from Knox County, Tennessee, but it could have been anywhere.

The Crime

In 1982, James Comer tried to prevent a car theft of a 1980 Olds Cutlass in Knoxville, Tennessee. The men shot him. He fired back, hitting their car. Comer survived. The men escaped in their car, an old junker covered in purplish-red primer, now with a bullet hole in it. Hutchison and Harper were later arrested and charged. Hutchison had tools, and tools were used in the attempted car theft. Hutchison worked in auto body repair, therefore had tools. Under the supervision of District Attorney Ed Dossett (now deceased), the men were convicted in 1985 before Judge Ray Jenkins.

FBI gets important information

Back in 1982, a few days after the shooting, FBI agents were conducting an investigation of auto theft in eastern Tennessee. Within days, 2 separate informants told undercover FBI agents Clyde Merryman and Joe Mann that Billy Hall had admitted being the one who shot the man during the auto theft. Billy Hall also brought in a car to a chop shop, a car with a bullet hole in it that matched the description. Because the agents were working undercover, they passed the information on to another FBI agent, Rex Owenby, who was to inform local Knox County authorities. But agent Owenby did not testify at trial or any post-trial hearing, and he apparently did not tell Knox County authorities. Contrary to FBI procedure, no report was made of this information.

Prosecution experts testified that the marks on the car attempted stolen were consistent with the tools possessed by Hutchison. It was discovered after trial that the prosecution had an FBI lab report that the marks could not have been made with the tools in question. In other words, there was perjured, false testimony given to the jury as "scientific" testimony. The defense claims that the information was hidden from them, while the prosecution says the reports were turned over to the defense, and it was simply "tactics" that the defense lawyers never countered the "expert" witnesses with their perjury. Yet, former prosecutor David Jennings said that while he did not intentionally hold back the report, it is possible that "something could have been overlooked."

Officers commit perjury, according to FBI report

Knoxville Police Department Detective Pat Wade testified that screws possessed by Hutchison were of the same size and pitch as those taken from the 1980 Olds. Knoxville Police Detective Jim Morris demonstrated for the jury with Hutchison's tools how the dent puller removed the ignition so the car could be started. He also agreed that the tools had the same size and pitch. He also identified tools belonging to Hutchison as being the same type that made the marks on the ignition switches. Special Agent Peale testified that residual material found on screws in Hutchison's possession was of the same material from the broken ignition. In reality, there was no residue of metal from the ignition on the screws, or on the tools. The FBI lab report issued to the prosecution before trial showed clearly that all of this "scientific" evidence was untrue, but that would not stop zealous officers from lying under oath to get a conviction.

In 1986, the FBI agents finally get around to writing a report about their information on the Comer shooting, and the scientific reports also came to light. But by then, James Harper was serving sentences totalling 5 years, while Leonard Hutchison was serving sentences totalling 15 years, all from this incident. Years of life had been lost, but where there is life, there is hope. With the new information, surely there would be a new trial.

For perhaps the only time in Tennessee history, an FBI agent went before the Tennessee Parole Board to ask that a duly convicted prisoner, Leonard Hutchison, be released from prison.

Prosecutors decide to win at any cost

In a shocking display of irresponsibility, Randy Nichols, the new District Attorney General of Knox County, opposed a new trial, joined by Philip Morton, District Attorney General of Blount County. Apparently, in Knox County, evidence that someone else committed the crime is meaningless to prosecutors. And, in Knox County, evidence that someone was convicted on false expert testimony is meaningless to prosecutors. After all, they had already "won." Their only interest, contrary to their ethical duties as prosecutors, was to maintain the win, whether or not an injustice was done.

It is also shocking that the prosecutors did not even attempt to prosecute any of the lying "experts" for their outright perjury. Shocking, but not surprising. A member of the team can get away with any atrocity, as long as it is used to put away a civilian. In Knox County, law enforcement does not turn on its own.

What is even more shocking is that John Knox Walkup, the Attorney General of the State of Tennessee, went along with this. His office joined in the effort to make sure that no jury would ever hear about Billy Hall's confession and the car with the bullet hole, and that no jury would ever hear about the perjured expert testimony and the tools that did not fit the marks.

Their position was simple. The local prosecutors who handled the case, Mike Dixon and David Jennings, did no wrong. If the FBI messed up, hey, it's none of our doing. So, without wrongdoing by the prosecutor, a person can't get a new trial, no matter what the new evidence might be. The issue is not whether the jurors lacked critical information to make their decision. The issue in the minds of the prosecutors is only whether Dossett, Dixon or Jennings did anything wrong at the time of trial.

Outraged trial court judge orders new trial

The criminal court judge who heard the motion, the Hon. Richard Baumgartner, rejected the prosecutor's position. He found that without the information about Billy Hall's confession and attempt to have chopped his car with a bullet hole in it, the jurors could not make a fair decision in the case. So, on January 22, 1996, he ordered that a new trial be held. The judge did not reach the issue of the misleading the jury by false expert testimony, directly contradicted by the FBI lab reports that the defense claims were withheld from them.

Although the prosecution had the legal right to appeal, they could have simply allowed a new trial to take place. After all, if Hutchison and Harper were actually guilty, then they would be reconvicted at a new trial. Bizarrely, it is the evidence of innocence of Hutchison and Harper that made that option unpalatable to the prosecution. It meant they would be less likely to win at a new trial. The local conviction rate was at stake, so an attempt to uphold the unjust convictions had to be made.

Prosecutors find sympathetic ear at appellate court

Fortunately for the prosecutors, they found a sympathetic ear at the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Judges Curwood Witt, Joseph M. Tipton, and William M. Barker exalted technicality over justice, and on December 23, 1997, overturned the grant of a new trial.

The appellate judges agreed that the trial court's finding, that "a reasonable probability existed that had the evidence been disclosed to the accused, the result of the proceedings would have been different," was supported by the evidence. They also said "we recognize and share the concern of the post-conviction judge that justice be done." They also said that "We are puzzled by the nine-month delay between [FBI Agent] O'Rear's letter to the district attorney and the notification provided to Hutchison's attorney." During that delay, the original appeals briefs were filed which did not raise the issue. None of those considerations stopped them from upholding the convictions.

The judges first ruled that James Harper filed his complaint too late. His time to complain about his conviction expired in 1990, and he did not file until 1993. So, his complaints could not be heard at all. Why was he too late? Because of a law passed by the Tennessee legislature. This law enforces the principle of "finality" that prevents courts from inquiring into injustice, no matter how blatant, if artificial time limits are not met.

Leonard and Shirley Hutchison

FBI reports failed to sway appellate court judges, as technicalities kept Leonard in prison year after year.

The judges went on to rule that Hutchison did meet his time limit. But, he also had to lose. The prosecutors did not know of the FBI information about Billy Hall during the trial, therefore, they committed no wrong during the trial, therefore, the court lacked authority to consider whether the conviction of Hutchison was unjust.

However, since the criminal court judge had not reached the issue of the FBI lab reports and perjured testimony by state experts saying the tools did match the marks on the 1980 Olds, they remanded the case for more hearings. If Judge Baumgartner again tries to do justice, the appellate court judges will decide whether or not they will let him. In the meantime, everybody suffers more delay, and more cost, solely because prosecutors want to avoid a new trial despite the injustice.

Juror disavows his verdict

Juror Gary Rogers was outraged when he read about these developments in the local paper. He signed an affidavit that the tools of Hutchison were displayed to the jury as the actual tools that made the marks on the car that the men tried to steal. He stated this was very important to the case, and that if the jury had known the truth, he personally would have had a reasonable doubt, and he believes the case would have come out differently. Despite this information, the win-at-any-cost prosecution team continues to try to bar these men from a new trial.

For more information, see the story in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, January 5, 1998.

Click here to read more about the "rule" of finality and how judge-created technicality has hijacked justice.
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