Buried Secrets

In a crazy world full of twisted evidence and wrongful testimony, sometimes the courts get it wrong. Sometimes they send an innocent person to prison. As Pulaski, TN resident James Suttle, who was convicted with murder and later found innocent, said, “it can happen to anyone, it happened to me.”

In the 41-minute episode of “Buried Secrets”, 20/20 exposes the secrets of how a doctor’s botched autopsies may have sent innocent people to jail and how a man working on a “body farm”, a place where bodies are taken to be used for scientific reasons, was able to prove the innocence of a jailed man.

In 2001, 49-year-old James Suttle (seen in the above picture on the right) was arrested for first-degree murder of his best friend and cousin Stevie Hobbs. The verdict? “Death by coffee table.” Suttle claimed profusely he was innocent and that his cousin feel onto a coffee table, but all signs of murder pointed to him.

While the story starts out with this murder case, about halfway through it takes a sharp turn when we find out the forensic specialist who conducted the autopsy was wrong about what happened. The way Hobbs was killed would have been physically impossible for Suttle to do. A splintered rib bone, which Hobbs sustained two weeks prior to his death in a fight, had punctured his lung. This is what actually killed him.

Dr. Charles Harlan (seen in the picture to the left), the forensic specialist, had said Suttle stabbed Hobbs with a shard of the shattered glass coffee table. The story continues into how Harlan may have sent many innocent people to jail because of his negligent autopsies.

I noticed 20/20’s story telling technique was to explain the events in the order they occurred. Although I liked this, I didn’t like how they presented some events as if they hadn’t happened yet. In the beginning they say things like “the trial is about to start.” They then present events in past tense. It annoyed me they kept going back and forth between past and present tense. I understand it from a narrative point of view, but I don’t think it worked for this kind of story. The video didn’t even match up with what they were saying when they described things in the present tense.

They did however make good use of pictures throughout the episode. When stories like this have limited video of a subject, such as Stevie Hobbs, it’s nice to see pictures.

20/20 interviewed an abundant amount of sources for this story including the judge in the case, Dr. Harlan, James Suttle, Suttle’s wife and daughter, the former prosecutor Richard Dunavant, Chief of Police John Dickery, defense attorney Paul Bruno, and Dr. Bill Bass, the anthropologist at the body farm.

I was very interested in how John Quinones, the host, interviewed his subjects. He was extremely pressing in getting information out of them. In his interview with Dr. Harlan he asked numerous questions that caught Harlan off guard. Harlan tells him the questions he’s asking don’t pertain to the topic of the interview, but Quinones continues to ask him questions anyway. Even after Dr. Harlan fell silent and stopped answering his questions, Quinones pressures him with tough questions. Finally Quinones asks if Harlan would like to stop the interview and Harlan responds with a yes. The interview was very intense and very entertaining. Even silence can be informative, especially because Harlan wasn’t denying he had done wrongful things.

In the other interviews Quinones asks lots of questions, but also lets the interviewees tell the story. This kept the flow going in the story and kept me interested.

20/20 did do a good job of reporting. They were able to find two people on death row due to the wrongful testimony of Harlan. Harlan’s testimony claiming rigor mortis can still be in effect more than 24 hours later was wrong. He also stated blood can still appear fresh many hours later after a murder. 20/20 found Harlan had been under examination for incompetence while he stood on the stand during Suttle’s trial. After 30 years of doing autopsies, Harlan was charged with 18 charges of incompetence and negligence in 2005. He had done things such as say an 11-year-old child had died due to natural causes when in fact it was clear the child had been neglected and starved. His dog also got into the room once and ate someone’s liver and spleen.

I felt every aspect of the story was covered. This made me feel pretty satisfied. They asked questions such as, “well if Suttle was put in jail by Harlan’s testimony, than are there others out there as well?” They answered this question. Also by going to the body farm they added another very interesting angle to consider. I never even knew body farms existed. It was almost like an element of surprise for viewers like me.

All of these things contributed to the good journalistic techniques 20/20 used in this story. I learned from how Quinones conducted his interviews and how he used them in the story. I enjoyed their use of pictures and I enjoyed how they broke the story up into smaller chunks so it wasn’t confusing.

Though I enjoyed many parts of how they put together the story, I felt 20/20 tried to sensationalize the story much more than it needed. Therefore it didn’t engage me as much as a crime story normally does. I was also a little annoyed by their use of pans and zooms in the episode.

Overall I didn’t feel it was the best of the stories, but I also felt I learned a lot from it.

To view the story, click on the video below:


photos courtesy of www.truthinjustice.org, abcnews.go.com and howstuffworks.com


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