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James Harper

Other Tennessee Exonerations
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In the early morning hours of September 1, 1982, 45-year-old James David Comer was shot three times outside of his apartment building in Knoxville, Tennessee. Comer said that he tried to stop two men from stealing his neighbor’s car, and that they shot him as they drove off in an “old-type racing car with primer paint.”

Two days later, while still in the hospital, Knoxville police detectives showed Comer a photographic lineup. The lineup included photographs of men who had prior convictions or reputations for committing car thefts and burglaries. Comer selected the picture of 39-year-old Leonard Hutchison as the gunman and driver of the getaway car. Leonard had prior convictions for assault and larceny, and police believed he was responsible for numerous burglaries. In the lineup, Hutchison stood out because police had altered the photograph of him to show him being about 6 feet 6 inches tall, even though he was only 5 feet 9 inches tall.

Police arrested Hutchison at his home and confiscated a bag of tools. They also seized a 1977 Ford Mustang, which loosely matched Comer’s description of the getaway car.

A week later, Hutchison made a telephone call from the Knox County Jail to a friend, 45-year-old James Harper. Although a recording of the call was largely unintelligible, police put a photograph of Harper in a lineup along with several photographs of police officers. Comer viewed this lineup and selected Harper as the second man, although he noted that the second man wore glasses and Harper did not.

Harper and Hutchison were indicted in 1983 on charges of burglary of an automobile and felonious assault. Hutchison was also indicted for possession of burglary tools based on the bag of tools seized from his home.

In early 1984, the defense lawyers received information that a man who was involved in the auto repair business had information about the shooting. However, the man, Tommy McClanahan, could not be located.

Harper and Hutchison went to trial in Knox County Criminal Court in December 1984. Comer told the jury that he spotted two men breaking into his neighbor’s car. When he ran out and tried to stop them, Hutchison shot him three times. He said Hutchison and Harper fled in the primer-painted racing style car.

FBI agent Ernest Roger Peel testified that he had examined the tools seized from Hutchison’s home and that they could have been the tools that left marks on the car. Knoxville police officer Patrick Wade testified that some marks found on the ignition switch of the car that was the target of the thieves were consistent with the diameter of Hutchison’s tools.

Hutchison and Harper both testified that they were elsewhere at the time of the crime. Harper, during his testimony, blurted out that he believed a man named Billy Hall was the gunman. Nevertheless, the defense contended that Comer, who was a pharmacist and then under investigation for illegally prescribing pain pills, was shot by a relative angry about a drug deal gone bad.

The defense also presented evidence that shortly after the shooting, Comer’s estranged wife told detectives that one of Comer’s cousins had threatened to kill him just a few hours before he was shot. Police went to the cousin’s home and confiscated a bloodstained shirt and a pistol, but did not arrest the cousin. The gun was not tested and was returned to the cousin. The shirt was lost without being tested as well.

After an eight-day trial, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the charges of burglary of an auto and felonious assault, resulting in a mistrial on those charges. The jury did find Hutchison guilty of possession of burglary tools, however, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 1985, while awaiting retrial on the mis-tried counts, two FBI agents visited Hutchison in prison. They told him they had information that someone else had committed the crime, but declined to reveal that information unless Hutchison agreed to help the FBI in some way. When Hutchison was unable to provide any help, the agents left.

Hutchison and Harper retained new defense attorneys and went to trial a second time in August 1985. The prosecution had subpoenaed Billy Hall—ostensibly to testify that he was not involved in the crime—but he was not called to testify. After the first trial, the defense was able to locate McClanahan. However, the day before the trial ended, he again disappeared and therefore the defense did not call him to testify.

Based on the FBI agent’s testimony at the first trial that Hutchison’s tools could have made the marks on the car, Hutchison’s attorney asked the prosecution about the FBI lab examination of Hutchison’s tools.

The prosecution informed him that the lab tests were actually inconclusive. Based on that representation, Hutchison’s attorney never asked for the FBI lab reports and agreed to stipulate that the tests were inconclusive. The FBI agent did not testify at the retrial. However, a different Knoxville police detective testified that the screw imprints on the ignition were consistent with Hutchison’s tools.

Comer again identified both men and the same defense was presented. On August 7, 1985, Harper and Hutchison were convicted of burglary of an auto and felonious assault. In October 1985, prior to sentencing, Hutchison requested that FBI agent Richard O’Rear, supervisor of the Knoxville FBI office, meet with him in jail. As a result of their conversation, O’Rear met with FBI agent Clyde Merryman.

Merryman informed O’Rear that at the time of the shooting, he and another agent, Joe Mann, were working undercover to investigate an East Tennessee “chop-shop” ring—a group of men who were buying stolen cars and cutting them up to resell the parts.

Merryman said that the day after the shooting, he and Mann spoke separately with Paul Allen and McClanahan, who were running a chop shop. Both said that a man named Billy Hall brought a primer-painted Pontiac to Allen’s shop so that it could be chopped up because it might connect him to Comer’s shooting. Hall pointed out a bullet hole in the windshield and said that after fleeing, he had to stop to change a tire that had been shot out.

Merryman reported that he and Mann believed that Hall’s story was credible. Because they were working undercover, however, they didn’t report the conversations to the Knoxville police department. Instead they said they contacted another FBI agent who had contacts in the Knoxville police department and asked him to pass along the information. Neither Merryman nor Mann wrote any report of the conversations Allen and McClanahan said they had with Hall and neither knew if the information was ever passed on to police.

O’Rear then ordered Merryman to interview McClanahan and Allen again. Both repeated the same story of Hall’s admission to the crime. Merryman wrote a report of the interviews, which O’Rear delivered to the Knox County District Attorney General’s office in January 1986. Shortly thereafter, McClanahan took and passed a polygraph test.

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) agent was assigned to investigate the matter, but none of that information was disclosed to Harper’s or Hutchison’s attorneys. In June 1987, the TBI investigation was concluded. Hutchison’s attorney was orally informed of some of the information, but was denied access to the TBI investigative files and was not provided with the FBI reports.

By that time, Harper had been sentenced to five years in prison. Hutchison had been sentenced to 25 years in prison to be served consecutively to the 10 years he received for the burglary tools possession conviction.

In March 1989, defense counsel filed a motion seeking a new trial based on evidence that someone else had committed the crime. However, the trial court denied the motion because there were no sworn affidavits from McClanahan or Allen about their conversations with the FBI agents.

In November 1990, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the denial of the motion.

In 1991, in response to a defense request, the trial court judge ordered the prosecution to disclose the FBI reports of Merryman’s interviews with McClanahan and Allen. At about that same time, the defense obtained, through a Freedom of Information Act request, a copy of the FBI laboratory tests on Hutchison’s tools. Contrary to what the prosecutor told defense counsel at trial, the report was not inconclusive—it stated that Hutchison’s tools did not leave the marks in the car.

The defense then filed a motion for post-conviction relief based on the failure of the prosecution to disclose the FBI report and the information from McClanahan and Allen. In January 1996, Judge Richard Baumgartner granted the motion and ordered a new trial for Harper and Hutchison solely on the basis of the prosecution’s failure to disclose the information obtained from Allen and McClanahan about Hall’s admissions that he shot Comer. Hutchison was immediately released on bond. Harper had been released on parole in 1987 after serving 14 months in prison.

In December 1997, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Judge Baumgartner’s ruling. The appeals court held that because the FBI had not disclosed that information to the Knox County prosecutors, they could not be faulted for not disclosing it. However, the appeals court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the prosecution’s failure to disclose the FBI lab report on the tests conducted on Hutchison’s tools was sufficient grounds to order a new trial.

While preparing for a hearing on the FBI lab report, Hutchison’s defense attorney, Robert Edwards, went to the prosecution’s office to review the post-conviction file. Edwards discovered a statement made to police just hours after the shooting that had never been disclosed. In the statement, a woman who lived in the apartment directly below Comer’s apartment said she heard someone outside the building shouting at Comer, “You (obscenity), I’m going to shoot you.” She said Comer stomped out of the building and then she heard gunshots. That account differed markedly from Comer’s testimony.

The defense also learned that before the second trial, the prosecution had seized burglary tools from Hall, but never examined them to determine if they could be linked to the marks left on the ignition of the car that was the subject of the shooting.

In December 2000, Judge Baumgartner, following another hearing, again ordered a new trial for Hutchison and Harper. In 2003, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld that ruling.

The defense then filed a motion to dismiss the charges. In January 2005, Judge Baumgartner dismissed the charges because much of the evidence had been lost, including Hutchison’s and Hall’s tools, and could not be retested. By that time, Harper had been dead for more than two years.

“Too much evidence and too many witnesses have been lost, due in part to the negligence of the State, but even more so by the passage of time,” Judge Baumgartner ruled.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/14/2017
State:Tennessee
County:Knox
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1982
Convicted:1985
Exonerated:2005
Sentence:5 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:45
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No