Gary Sutton and James Dellinger
On the afternoon of February 21, 1992 James Anderson Dellinger and his nephew, Gary Wayne Sutton were at a local bar in Sevier County Tennessee. They were drinking and playing pool with Dellinger's young neighbor, Tommy Griffin. The bartender would later say that the three men left around 7pm and that she did not notice anything odd or that any of the men seemed angry.
A short while later a couple was driving down the road when they noticed a car pulled off to the side. They observed two men outside of the car seemingly forcing another man out of the back. They called the police. While officers were in route another person saw a man walking along the same road without a shirt in the cold February weather. On the way to check out the report an officer conducted a traffic stop so he called another officer in to check out the first report. When the second officer arrived he found a a pick up truck on the side of the road with two men. The man on the back of the truck was Tommy Griffin. Griffin did not have a shirt on and was clearly intoxicated. He told the officers that his friends had kicked him out of their car, but he would not say who the friends were or why they had left him on the side of the road. The officer arrested Griffin for public intoxication around 7:40 that evening.
Authorities would say that about an hour after Griffin was booked into the jail James Dellinger had shown up at the police department attempting to bail him out but was told that due to the charge there was a minimum waiting time of four hours.
By a description of the area in which Dellinger lived it appears it was a road of several mobile homes. Apparently Dellinger lived in one with his wife, Tommy Griffin lived in another and in still another it appears that Tommy's sister, Connie Branham had one. Another neighbor would report that around 9:00 they had seen Dellinger's truck stopped on the road near Tommy's home and saw someone get into the passenger seat. Around the time that the truck pulled into the Dellinger driveway the neighbor reported seeing flames coming from Tommy Griffin's home. They would call authorities. It would later be determined to be a case of arson.
Around the time the fire started Connie's daughter Jennifer ran over to the Dellinger's home to see if they knew where her uncle was. They told her that he had met up with a girl and had left with her. Jennifer continued to watch, seemingly from her home, and recounted seeing Dellinger take an object that appeared to be a shotgun from the back of his truck and place it in his wife's vehicle. She then saw Dellinger and Sutton leave.
Records show that at 11:25 pm Dellinger went to the county jail and bailed out Tommy Griffin. People saw them leaving the police station. That was the last time anyone saw Tommy alive.
The following morning Jennifer saw Dellinger take what she believed to be the shotgun from his wife's car and place it under his mobile home. As noon started to get closer Connie decided she need to go look for her brother who had never returned home, even though obviously his home was no longer there. Around 2:00 she was seen in a local grocery store asking if anyone had seen her brother. Later the owner of the store noticed her outside, in the parking lot, talking to two men in a white pick up truck. The two men were Dellinger and Sutton.
By all account it seems they must have told Connie that they had seen her brother the night before at the local bar and the three of them headed there. The bartender on duty when they got there had seen them the night before but her shift had ended before the trio had left. At 5:00 the next bartender came in and confirmed to Connie that Tommy had been with Sutton and Dellinger the night before. Dellinger attempted to get the woman to say that he and Sutton had left Tommy there with a woman but the bartender had specifically seen the three leave together. Apparently seeing that was not working Dellinger suggested that they had returned after he had bailed Tommy out of jail. The bartender knew this was not true either. She would later say that after inquiring whether she was married, and learning that she was, Dellinger had made a comment to her about how it would be a shame if she came up missing one day.
Connie, Dellinger and Sutton left the bar around 6:30 that evening. At about 8:00 that night a couple saw a fire in the woods near their home but apparently it was not enough to warrant a call to the fire department. The following morning the woman saw two men in a white truck pull out of the woods near the area where she had seen the fire the night before.
On February 24th a man had gone to a local fishing/swimming pond with his daughters. Along the banks the man discovered a body and called the police. It was the body of Tommy Griffin. He had been shot in the back of the head near the base of his neck. There were two 12 gauge shotgun shells nearby as well as some beer cans. It would be determined that the shells matched the bullet wound, and later it would be discovered they also matched shells found in James Dellinger's yard. A man who owned a house very close to the swimming hole reported that he had heard two or three shots right around midnight late on the 21st.
On February 28th Connie Branham's body was found in her burned vehicle where the couple had seen the fire on the night of February 22nd. Because of the condition of the body the coroner could not determine a time of death but they did know she had been killed, not by the fire but, by a rifle. They found a .303 shell at the scene. This too would later be linked to a gun found on the Dellinger property.
Considering that Tommy Griffin had been murdered in Blount County and Connie in Sevier County the defendants, while tried together, were tried twice, first in Sevier County. They were convicted of 1st degree premeditated murder and give life sentences. In September of 1996 they were convicted in Blount County for the murder of Tommy Griffin. The jury had been made aware of the conviction in Sevier County and recommended the death penalty for both defendants.
As with the case in all death penalty cases, appeals drag on and on. Ultimately neither of their cases were successful in overturning their convictions or sentences but they did bring up some interesting points, especially in the case of Dellinger. In his case his biggest argument was his intelligence level. The Supreme Court has ruled that anyone with an IQ below 70 cannot be executed due to their mental capacity. Just as is the case in just about every case it seems you can always find someone to agree with your assessment and side. In this case the defense had people saying Dellingers IQ was in the 68-69 range while the state said in the 72-83 range. In comparison, Sutton's IQ has been found to be in the 77-83 range meaning that they both have a lower intelligence level. In Dellingers case it was said that he left school at the age of ten and did not have the ability to read or write. Sutton dropped out in the 8th grade.
I did find a report in which in February of 2015 a judge ruled that the attorney who had handled Dellinger's appeal case, Catherine Brockenborough and seemingly her boss, Donald Dawson had been inadequate. They had been provided by the state under the public defender rule. The judge stated they were "grossly negligent." According to the judge Brockenborough, who would be fired in 2007 (for reasons I could not determine) suffered from bi-polar disorder and at the time she was handling his case she was in the midst of a mental breakdown and missed filings in several areas. The judge chastised Dawson, who retired in 2012, because in Dawson's words he was "overwhelmed" with cases but in the words of the judge "too busy to care." The article in which discussed this was headed in a way in which it would make a major difference in Dellinger's case. However, later that year I found a record in which his conviction and sentence had been upheld.
Sutton's appeals were a bit confusing. Much of his surrounded arguing that a witness for the state had falsified or misrepresented their credentials. In doing so they were also arguing the time of death set for Tommy Griffin. As I stated the appeals failed and conviction and sentence were upheld.
I find it interesting that I never found a statement as to a theory or a reason as to why Tommy Griffin was murdered in the first place. It was theorized that his sister was murdered the following day to cover up Tommy's murder but still nothing seemed to come out as far as the initial reason or motive for the murder of Tommy. Most believe that the reason the duo were given the death sentence in Tommy's case was because the jury had been made aware of their conviction in Connie's case. I would have to agree with that although I find it odd that the death sentence was not enacted in her case considering their motive in doing so.
I am unsure that either of these men will ever be executed in Tennessee. The state re-implemented the death penalty in 1975 but it was not until 2000 that they actually executed anyone, and then it was when they began using lethal injections. They executed six people in the next nine years, with the last execution taking place in 2009. They have nearly 100 people on death row in Tennessee, only one of them being a woman. It has been said that anyone convicted before 1998 has the option of using the electric chair as opposed to lethal injection (as if that is really a choice). In 2007 a committee was formed to study the death penalty and the process in the state. It was not recommended that the death penalty be abolished, but reformed. By the looks of it, it does not appear that was taken to heart.