Is State Death Row Inmate Getting Unequal Justice?

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November 25, 2003

6 News Anchor/Reporter

NASHVILLE (WATE) — Convicted murderer and Tennessee death row inmate Olin “Eddie” Hutchison is scheduled to die March 11th. His case is gaining attention not because of questions about his guilt, but over whether the death penalty is unequal justice for his crime.

The prosecution claimed that Hutchison and six other men conspired to drown Hugh Huddleston in 1988 for a half million dollars in life insurance money. The victim, who couldn't swim, was pushed off a pontoon boat on Norris Lake.

Evidence shows Hutchison wasn't at the scene of the crime. But he and the insurance agent who wrote the policy were sentenced to death.

The agent died in prison. The five others who were on the boat that night are either free or awaiting parole.

“I didn't do this because I wasn't there,” Hutchison said. “And I didn't pay, procure or promise to pay anyone. That's as straight as I can be.”

Speaking to 6 News from Death Row, Hutchison may never admit he had anything to do with murder. But four people tell a different story.

They say Hutchison orchestrated a murder-for-hire scheme to kill Hugh Huddleston for the insurance money.

“See, the big problem is, I wasn't aware of the amount of insurance the man took out to secure the promissory note,” Hutchison said. It was worth $50,000.

Hutchison was convicted of masterminding the murder and agreeing to split the $500,000 with a group of men if they would kill Huddleston.

After 6 News went over more than 1,000 pages of trial transcripts, it's clear that Hutchison's case hinged not on pure physical evidence, but on testimony from others implicated in the crime.

The conspirators fingered him, then went on to make plea deals that would get them out of jail.

Ricky Miller lured the victim onto the boat. He got two years in the county jail. Johnny Rollyson admitted his guilt and spent six years in prison. Phillip Varnadore also pleaded guilty and served six years.

6 News asked District Attorney Paul Phillips, who prosecuted the case, about the difference in punishment. “You had three people who cooperated with the prosecution, who were lesser participants.”

But even William Hatmaker, who admitted pushing Huddleston to his death, is eligible for parole. The DA said that's because the killer confessed to the crime. “I mean, as far as did he deserve the death sentence? Yes. But he accepted responsibility. Mr. Hutchison never did.”

Still, Hutchison maintains his innocence. “I had no part in it and I ain't accepting no kind of plea.”

Chip Gaylor also claimed he had no part in the murder. Gaylor lived with the victim and stood to inherit more than $200,000. The jury convicted him, but since he was 23 at the time, his life was spared. “Obviously under the law, it's appropriate for the jury to consider that Mr. Gaylor was a young man and much less sophisticated in criminality,” the district attorney said.

However, 6 News has uncovered that Gaylor did have a criminal history before the murder. He'll be eligible for parole in 17 years.

And 6 News has also learned that Olin Hutchison's record was clean.

Hutchison's new attorney, Dana Hansen, said he doesn't meet the criteria of the death penalty in Tennessee. “Tennessee law reserves the death penalty for the worst of the worst offenders. And in this case, Tennessee law wasn't written for a person like Mr. Hutchison who wasn't present at the crime scene and who didn't participate in the actual killing.”

The district attorney concedes that in this case, the death penalty is arguable. “To me, you can legitimately debate that either way, as to whether or not he should receive the ultimate sentence.”

And the countdown begins for Olin Hutchison. His date with death is four months from now. “I'm paying a debt to society that I don't owe.”

Hutchison's attorney has asked the federal district court and the state trial court to review the fairness of his sentencing.

If it doesn't go Hutchison's way in the courts, his attorney will ask Gov. Bredesen for clemency.

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