Hunt begins for discredited medical examiner

A local defense attorney said he doubts it will be easy to force a discredited state medical examiner back into a Hamilton County criminal courtroom to face allegations that he botched yet another autopsy.

The former Dr. Charles Harlan already has lost his medical license and apparently now is living with his mother in Missouri after officials concluded he had been making false statements on Tennessee autopsy reports for years, defense attorney Dan Ripper said.

Mr. Ripper estimates his client, convicted killer Stephan LaJuan Beasley, is just one of many defendants across the state continuing to use Dr. Harlan's ruined reputation as fuel in bids for new trials.

PDF: Stephan Beasley petition

"Probably as many people who are in jail (after cases in which) Dr. Harlan testified is the number who could be challenging their convictions because of him," Mr. Ripper said.

Mr. Beasley's appeals kicked into high gear in 2005, the same year then-Dr. Harlan lost his medical license when the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners concluded he had committed numerous acts of malpractice, fraud, deceit and unprofessional conduct.

The Tennessee Supreme Court denied Mr. Beasley's appeal once, but a new motion he made in Hamilton County Criminal Court in 2008 convinced Judge Don Poole to set a hearing. The proceeding will examine Mr. Beasley's claims that the doctor's autopsy in his girlfriend's death led to a felony murder conviction and life in prison with no possibility of parole.

The hearing has been set for June 7 after many delays, but Mr. Ripper said that's only if Mr. Harlan can be found.

"I'll need to ensure he's unwilling to come here, which I don't think will be much of a stretch, and then take the appropriate measures to get him here," Mr. Ripper said.

Mr. Harlan could not be reached for comment.

Medical examiners such as Mr. Harlan was perform thousands of autopsies over the course of their careers and frequently testify at murder trials.

Although there are no records showing how many times Mr. Harlan testified as an expert witness, the professional investigation against him, as well as another prominent state murder trial in which the convicts are challenging his work, highlight the many problems still swirling around the former doctor.

ABC's national news program "20/20" profiled Mr. Harlan on March 5 regarding a murder trial in Blount County that sent defendants Gary Sutton and James Dellinger to death row for the 1996 killing of Tommy Griffin.

In that case, Dr. Harlan testified it was possible for a body to be in rigor mortis three days after death and that blood still can look bright red and wet after days. That supported the prosecution's theory that Mr. Griffin died on a Friday when he was with the defendants, even though police found his body with rigor mortis and fresh wounds the following Monday.

Rigor mortis, or the gradual stiffening of a dead body, goes away within 36 hours of death, according to other medical experts.

Mr. Sutton and Mr. Dellinger deny the killing.

Mr. Beasley's case is different, since he confessed to the 1993 killing of his estranged girlfriend, but he still alleges that Mr. Harlan's testimony seriously hurt him at trial.

Mr. Beasley wants to prove at the June 7 hearing that Dr. Harlan purposely made a gash to victim Ugandra Shibley's throat during the autopsy, thereby making him look like a "monster" to the jury.

He also alleges the former doctor deliberately made markings to her fingers, leading jurors to believe Mr. Beasley stole her rings before shooting her.

Such evidence, which showed that he supposedly committed a separate felony during a killing, led to the felony murder conviction and a life prison sentence without parole. At his 1994 trial, Mr. Beasley was the only person at the time ever to receive such a punishment in Hamilton County.

The prosecution denies Dr. Harlan's testimony had anything to do with the outcome of Mr. Beasley's trial.

"(Mr. Beasley) fails to identify any newly discovered evidence nor how the newly discovered evidence would have resulted in a different judgment," Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston states in court documents.

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