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Justice Warrior Podcast-Episode 49: The Wrongful Conviction of Gary Sutton


Narrative Summary

On February 24, 1992, the body of Mr. Tommy Griffin was discovered on the riverbank of Sevierville, TN, from a shotgun blast to the head. His sister, Connie Branam, was discovered in the next county over, burned alive in her car, just four short days later. When investigators began to retrace the steps of the victims, they learned that the defendant, Gary Sutton, and his uncle, James Dellinger, had allegedly been seen with both victims, prior to their being murdered. Naturally, and without knowing information exposed through this investigation, any person on the outside looking in would believe that Sutton and Dellinger had acted together to commit these gruesome acts. However, thirty years later, with execution just around the corner, Sutton, who has consistently maintained his innocence, has finally obtained the evidence necessary to prove that there are other possible suspects with motive and that the investigators, who took the utilitarian approach to achieve what they believed was “justice,” have made dire mistakes, which caused another innocent life to be lost.

During the pre-trial phase, defense attorneys, F.D. Gibson and John Goergon (for Sutton), raised issue with the court pertaining to their lack of experience in criminal (particularly capital murder) cases. The court refused to relieve them and find better, more competent, attorneys to represent the accused. Though the pair certainly gave it their best effort, ultimately, they were unable to overcome the bias that was so blatantly displayed throughout the entire judicial process. Transcripts of the trial and subsequent hearings reveal non-truths told by lead investigators (under oath) in pursuit of search warrants, jury tampering and coercion of witnesses. In fact, the complete lack of integrity displayed by investigators combined with the court’s compliance to allow evidence in that should have been stricken, caused the defendants to be faced with a set of prejudices impossible to overcome. 

Issues at Trial

1.     Sutton’s attorneys acknowledged that they lacked experience in homicide cases (let alone Capital Murder) and requested to be relieved of their duty to the client. The court denied their request.

2.     Key witness, Dr. Charles Harlan, who established the time and date of death of the victim, was under investigation by the TBI at the time of this trial. He later lost his medical license, causing several cases that he’d testified in to be overturned. Though the defense’s forensic expert adamantly disagreed with Harlan’s testimony in this case, the court refused to acknowledge the possibility that Harlan’s report was inaccurate because, if it did, it could change the outcome of the entire case. Whether, or not, the defendants could possibly be perpetrators of this crime relies heavily on the timeline created and sworn to by this discredited expert witness.

3.     Although the victim had been arrested on public intoxication charges on the night in question, the arresting officer, Officer Roberts, failed to get the names of two “older” gentlemen (driving a dark pickup truck) that the victim was with at the time that he was arrested. To date, these men have never been identified but, arguably, should have been sought for questioning and considered suspects.

4.     Family members of the victim were seen talking to the jurors. When the person who witnessed this informed the judge, he replied, “I think it will be okay.”

5.     Lead investigator, Detective Widener, was confronted, on the stand, by the judge, for having lied in an affidavit about having two witnesses that he claimed saw the defendants at the crime scene. It was this false testimony that provided grounds for the search warrant at Dellinger’s trailer.

6.     When confronted with the possibility of separating the defendants in order to ensure that they both received a fair trial, the state told the judge that they would have to let Mr. Sutton go, if they did that, because they had “no evidence” tying Mr. Sutton directly to the crime.

Despite discrepancies, Sutton and Dellinger were convicted on 1st Degree murder charges, in Blount County Circuit Court, on September 5, 1996.

New Evidence

1.     Witness 1

I met with Witness 1 at her home, in Sevier County, on April 27, 2022. Upon introducing myself as a private investigator who has been hired, by the family of Gary Sutton, to investigate the facts and statements that led to his being convicted for the murders of Tommy Griffin and Connie Branam, Witness 1 expressed concern that her testimony may have played a role in his conviction. Witness 1 recited the facts, as she remembered them, of the events she witnessed on February 22, 1992, and stated that she could not say, with certainty, whether, or not, the white truck she saw that day was James Dellinger’s. Further, Witness 1 stated that she felt that the investigators put forth that she was certain. Witness 1's uncertainty of whether, or not, that was, in fact, the vehicle that saw, has caused her a great deal of anxiety about the idea of Mr. Sutton’s upcoming execution date. At a later date, I returned to Witness 1's home to show her a picture of a white Dodge D100, the vehicle driven by my person of interest in this case. Witness 1 said, again, that she could not be sure if the white dodge she saw was the Ram, driven by James Dellinger, or the D100, driven by the alternate suspect.

2.     Witness 2

On June 4, 2022, I visited the home of witness, Witness 2. Witness 2's statement was relied upon, by the prosecution, for placing Dellinger and Sutton at the scene of the crime. Witness 2, who had heard three gunshots and reported it to his mother, claimed to have also seen a vehicle flee the scene shortly after hearing shots fired. Witness 2 described the vehicle as being an “older style boxy car” and compared it to an Oldsmobile or Cadillac. A couple weeks later, on June 25th, I returned to clarify whether the vehicle that Witness 2 had seen that day could have been Sutton’s Camaro. Witness 2 stated, with absolute certainty, that it was not a Camaro that he saw fleeing the scene on that day. When asked whether he’d been questioned about the car, on the stand, Witness 2 said that he had not.

3.     Juror 1

I visited Juror 1 at her home in Maryville, TN on May 7, 2022. Juror 1's memory of the trial was clear and concise. She recalled both Defendants (Sutton and Dellinger) and expressed concern over the fact that Sutton was set to be executed but Dellinger was not. Juror 1 informed me that she had been the last juror to sign the guilty verdict and that she had to be talked into it by her friend who was also on the jury.

4.     Juror 2

I spoke with Juror 2 on May 7, 2022. Juror 2 stated that there was a woman on the jury who was agitated during deliberation. Juror 2 said that the woman was getting upset with jurors who asked questions. He further stated that this woman demanded that everyone find him guilty and stop asking questions so they could go home.

5.     Juror 3

I spoke with Juror 3 at her home on June 5, 2022. Juror 3 expressed concern over Sutton’s execution and stated that the state drove her (and the rest of the jurors) by the crime scene every single day on their way to and from court. She also stated that, when she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to sign for the death sentence, another juror asked her “what if this was your daughter” and it got to her. Juror 3 expressed some regret and concern that she had been influenced.

6.     Witness 3

Witness 3, a former law enforcement officer, provided a declaration stating that he had first-hand knowledge of the type of vehicle that Lester Johnson was driving at the time of the murders, which was a white Dodge truck.

Alternate Suspect/Theory

Lester “Festus” Johnson (Suspect)

The prosecution failed to provide the defense with exculpatory evidence when it neglected to disclose Johnson as a possible suspect. Further, by running a comprehensive report on Mr. Johnson, I discovered that he also drove a white Dodge truck. Upon this discovery, I returned to the home of Barbara Gordon, showing her a picture of the year, make and model of the truck owned by Mr. Johnson. Ms. Gordon was unable to say whether it was, or wasn’t, the same style truck that she had testified that she had seen fleeing the crime scene. Further, on this day, I asked Ms. Gordon if she happened to notice a dodge emblem on the hubcaps of the truck. This is a detail that she did not remember and that was never mentioned at trial, yet Dellinger’s truck had noticeable Dodge emblems on the hubcaps and Johnson’s, being an older model, did not.

Both victims (Connie Branam and Tommy Griffin) had been subpoenaed to testify against Mr. Johnson in a criminal matter that just so happened to have been concluded on, or about, the same time as the murders of Griffin and Branam. In an attachment to a recent Motion filed by co-defendant, James Dellinger’s, defense team, was the declaration of Mary Ann Husky (wife of Lester Johnson), who claimed to have dropped Lester Johnson off in Sevier County on the day Branam and Griffin were murdered. Furthermore, Husky stated, in her declaration, that Johnson admitted to the offense that he had just been cleared of (attempted murder and attempted rape of Tina Hartman); and that he claimed it was in an attempt to find out who was involved in a crime committed against his cousin, Michael Vaughn (a crime that had left Vaughn paralyzed). According to Husky, Gartman told Johnson what he wanted to know and that was that Tommy Griffin (and another unnamed individual) were responsible for the attack on Vaughn. This gives Johnson both motive and opportunity and is an extremely important piece of evidence that was deliberately withheld from the jury and the defense.

Johnson’s son, Shane Thorton (deceased), also provided a statement. Thorton claims that he had received and delivered several sealed letters from his father while he was in jail. One letter, written directly to Shane, gave clear instructions to threaten a woman who had been called to testify against him. Each of the messages delivered, by Johnson, were death threats to people who had information that could potentially cause him to be convicted for the crime he committed against Gartman.


For the reasons listed above and, collectively, both new evidence and previously raised issues, there is no doubt that Defendant Sutton suffered multiple prejudices that would have undoubtedly resulted in a different outcome had the state conducted its investigation with the level of due diligence and integrity that it is supposed to. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence is the lack of actual evidence against Defendant Sutton and the fact that the State knew that the only way they could charge him would be to try him with Dellinger, based on the assertion that he and Dellinger were together during the established time of death. However, with the expert witness, Charles Harlan, having been discredited, how can one say, with certainty, that this was one of the rare occasions when Dr. Harlan’s testimony could be trusted? The fact of the matter is that, essentially, none of the evidence that was used to convict either defendant has withstood the test of time. If one were to stricken; (a) the illegal search warrant (based on perjured testimony); (b) the testimony of a discredited expert witness establishing the time and date of death; (c) the guilty verdict of a tampered with jury; (d) the testimony of a witnesses who has provided a new statement expressing that the state put her “maybe” forth as certainty in their effort to place Dellinger at the crime scene; and another witness whose account of seeing a “boxy” vehicle flee the crime scene was left out entirely, there would be very little left to convict either defendant. Perhaps more importantly is the fact that the state failed to disclose exculpatory evidence that could have helped the defense develop an alternate theory. Failure to provide exculpatory evidence is reason enough to grant the defendants a new trial but, since there is little to no evidence left standing, the state is inevitably left with no other ethical choice but to exonerate Gary Wayne Sutton.                                                                                         

                                                               Kind regards,

                                                               P.I. Heather M. Cohen (TN #8049)

                                                               Justice Warrior Investigations (TN #2141)






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