The original Gaston County Police investigative report was unearthed Tuesday, after the Observer made a routine records request.
But the newly discovered report contained statements from former sister-in-law Carolyn Sutherland Morrow saying she saw the baby moving and patted him on the back after 4 a.m. the next morning.
The report had been filed away and gone unnoticed at the Gaston department, even though police in the nearby town of Stanley had investigated the case for the past year and the district attorney agreed to prosecute.
Thursday morning, Stanley police called in Morrow to talk about whether she saw the baby alive that morning.
Hours later, Bell announced he was dismissing charges.
There's no certainty about how Scottie Sutherland died.
"All I want is justice for Scottie," said his grandmother Karen Sutherland. "I believe there needs to be more investigation done on this."
Payne and family members who were there that night remember that she fed the baby and put him to bed before going to work. She returned to the house about 6 a.m.
"I got his milk out of the refrigerator," Payne told the Observer. "I got all of his stuff ready. And I went to pick him up and his fingernails were black."
She said his body was cold and he was turning black, blue, and purple.
"I screamed," she said.
The county medical examiner's autopsy report at the time said a family member checked the baby at 5 a.m. and observed Scottie sleeping. "Nothing appeared to be wrong with the infant at that time," wrote Donald Conrad, a county medical examiner then who has since died.
Conrad's report also quotes EMS workers who said the baby was "warm to touch ... baby had not been dead long."
The Observer reviewed portions of the newly discovered 1996 Gaston County police report on the case. Detective E.B. Tucker wrote that he took statements from Richard and Karen Sutherland, and his aunt Carolyn Finley, now Carolyn Morrow.
Morrow told police in that report that she came home from work about 4 a.m. and saw Scottie moving around in his playpen and patted him on his back.
Morrow said in the report she went to sleep about 4:30 a.m. As she passed the playpen she could hear Scottie snoring.
Today, she remembers it differently.
Interviewed late Thursday by the Observer, Morrow says she didn't get off work until 5 a.m. and home until 5:30. She has no memory of seeing the baby awake or touching him. And she couldn't say for sure whether he was alive or dead.
"Scottie's crib was in the living room," Morrow said. "I always walked right past it on the way to my room. I looked at him and it looked like he was asleep. So I went on to bed."
On March 18, according to police, Payne explained how on May 24, 1996, she was running late for her textile mill job. She said it was about 10 p.m. and she was struggling to get Scottie to sleep so she could leave. She had already fed him and was standing up while rocking him. He wouldn't stop crying.
"I held his head into the pillow for about 5 minutes against my chest to make him go to sleep," she said in a statement taken by police. "I was frustrated. I held his face into the pillow until he stopped breathing."
Stanley police said they also learned Payne had a history of suspected child abuse. She acknowledged long involvement with Gaston County Department of Social Services, but said the allegations were false.
In recent telephone interviews from the Gaston County Jail, Payne repeatedly told the Observer that her murder confession wasn't true.
Payne, who says she's bipolar, said she didn't remember anything she told police March 18 because she had taken heavy doses of narcotics, muscle relaxers and anti-anxiety drugs.
"I didn't kill my son," Payne told the newspaper.
Bell said he decided Payne should not be charged after he saw the 1996 Gaston County police report. "Physical facts proved she could not have done it," he said without providing specifics.
He said he believes Payne's mental instability and anguish over Scottie's death led to the confession.
Bell said investigators were looking for the report because he raised concerns about Payne's confession. He credited police with doing "extensive research into the facts."
But Gaston police Capt. Joe Ramey said his department only found the report because the Observer asked for it.
Stanley police have said they asked Gaston police for any reports or investigations into the case, but received nothing.