For two decades Paul House has fought to prove he’s innocent, and after countless court hearings, appeals and denials, his fate now rests with a single judge—the very same judge who upheld his conviction and death sentence years ago, despite new evidence that even the U.S. Supreme Court determined would have resulted in acquittal.
The controversial case was reassigned to U.S. District Court Judge James H. Jarvis last week, and on Tuesday House filed a motion asking the federal judge in Knoxville to release him from his “illegal conviction and death sentence” unless the state grants him a new trial within 90 days.
“I’d like to think the judge would rule quickly,” says Stephen Kissinger, the federal public defender representing House. “We are sitting around discussing whether this innocent person’s constitutional rights were violated while he is still sitting on death row.”
But if the history of this convoluted case is any indication, a quick resolution is optimistic at best.
Although it’s unclear how long it might take the judge to rule once the state responds to House’s latest motion, when Judge Jarvis considered this case in 1999, it took him more than a year to issue a ruling. If Jarvis dismisses House’s petition this time around, Kissinger says he of course will appeal once again.
“My concern, which I have expressed on some occasions, is that if you look at the timeline in this case, it doesn’t bode well for Mr. House living long enough to fight over technicalities,” Kissinger says, referring to his client’s deteriorating health. House, 45, is dying from the degenerative disease multiple sclerosis, which, by all accounts, has gone untreated behind bars, leaving him weak and unable to walk or stand.
House was convicted in 1986 and sentenced to death for the murder of 29-year-old Carolyn Muncey in rural Union County. The prosecution argued at trial that House raped the victim and then bludgeoned her to death to keep from getting caught. The alleged rape was the only motive presented to the jury, and it was the aggravating factor used to justify sentencing House to death.
Years after his conviction, however, DNA testing proved he did not rape Muncey, and that the semen found on her nightgown in fact belonged to her husband, Hubert Muncey. In addition, it was discovered—and experts have confirmed—that the bloodstains on House’s blue jeans didn’t come from the crime scene after all, but from vials of blood collected during the investigation that somehow spilled on the suspect’s clothing. There also were new witnesses who claimed the victim’s hard-drinking, physically abusive husband tearfully confessed to murdering his wife during an argument.
But the new evidence failed to sway Judge Jarvis, who dismissed House’s habeas corpus petition. Then, in a highly controversial 8-7 ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowly denied the petition in 2004.
Last June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed House’s likely innocence after reviewing the case, permitting him to pursue exoneration using post-conviction DNA evidence. In its opinion, the majority called his “A rare case where—had the jury heard all the conflicting testimony—it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror viewing the record as a whole would lack reasonable doubt.”
When Judge Jarvis first reviewed the new evidence eight years ago, he was clearly skeptical, questioning the credibility of the new witnesses who claimed Carolyn Muncey’s husband confessed to the murder, saying he was “not impressed” with the stories of those who waited a decade to come forward. But according to Kissinger, those witnesses told investigators of the confession years ago, but no one seemed to care. As for new DNA evidence proving House didn’t rape the victim, the judge discounted its importance, suggesting the murder still could have been proven in the absence of rape allegations. And although rape was the only motive given, the state has since asserted it’s possible he murdered Muncey but did not rape her.
In a brief filed with the 6th Circuit in December, the state made it clear that the Supreme Court’s decision “does nothing to undermine” its previous position, which is that House isn’t entitled to further proceedings based on new evidence. Kissinger believes the state will argue that Judge Jarvis must decide the case based on the trial court record, which, according to the Supreme Court, is both flawed and lacking crucial evidence. In a statement, Attorney General Bob Cooper says, “I have reviewed the pleadings in this case. As it remains in active litigation in the federal district court in Knoxville, I must respectfully decline to discuss the case beyond what is stated in our pleadings.” Although Cooper declines to comment further on how the state intends to proceed, there’s been no indication of plans to abandon the fight to keep House on death row.
In the latest motion seeking House’s release, Kissinger outlines numerous errors in the case, including inaccurate testimony from state witnesses, sloppy investigative work and possible prosecutorial misconduct.
“There is really nothing left of the government’s case,” says Kissinger, who criticizes the state for refusing to admit its mistake. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s bring in this evidence and see what it shows to see if he got a fair trial,’ they’ve done nothing but assert technicalities. It’s really obscene.”
Although Gov. Phil Bredesen has the authority to step in, he has previously said it’s his policy to refrain from intervening in capital cases until all judicial remedies are exhausted. But given that House’s health is quickly declining because of advanced MS, many of his supporters are urging the governor to issue a pardon before it’s too late.
In fact, last month a group of death penalty opponents met with members of the governor’s staff to discuss House’s case, and to ask that Bredesen make an exception and consider weighing in on the matter. “Our concern is that if we wait on the courts, he may have no quality of life left by the time he is released,” says Stacy Rector, director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. “The governor has the authority to pardon him and end this now.”
Although Rector says she and fellow advocates for House were told the governor would review the case, they were reminded of his reluctance to interfere with the courts’ handling of capital cases. Lydia Lenker, the governor’s spokeswoman, confirms that Bredesen’s office is reviewing the matter, but says she can’t comment further.
During a recent panel discussion on capital punishment at Vanderbilt’s First Amendment Center, prominent legal experts discussed the reluctance of elected officials to get involved in death penalty cases. “The executive branch has essentially walked off the stage,” said Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who investigated the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Since his days on Capitol Hill, Starr has represented a number of defendants facing execution, and has pleaded with governors to intervene on more than one occasion. Although he lives in California, Starr said he was familiar with House’s case and its implications.
On the same panel last month was Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, who told the audience flatly, “There is an innocent man on death row in Tennessee,” referring to House. Judge Merritt, who sits on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, authored a scathing dissent after the court voted 8-7 to deny House a new trial in 2004.
Contacted for this story, Judge Merritt says the House case is “a terrible situation,” but declined to say much more because the canon of judicial ethics precludes him from commenting on active cases. For a more complete picture, he points to his dissenting opinion in which he wrote:
“It is more probable than not that House is innocent of the homicide and that Mr. Muncey killed his wife, as he confessed.… The State, and its officials who have prosecuted, sentenced and reviewed the case, are inclined to persevere in the belief that the State was right all along. They tend to close ranks and resist admission of error.… This case is a good example of how these errors can lead to the execution of a defendant who is actually innocent.”
Even if Paul House is never executed by the state, he might well die on death row if the appeals process continues at this pace. During the six years since being diagnosed with MS, House’s health has rapidly declined. He can no longer walk, or even stand on his own. He can’t bathe or feed himself either. At times, he has trouble speaking.
During a recent visit to Riverbend Maximum Security prison in Nashville, the Rev. Joe Ingle visited House and the two spoke about his condition. House described losing feeling in his limbs, and how he fears it may never return. Ingle, who also suffers from MS, says House’s disease has progressed much faster because he has received no treatment. “When I brought up the prospect of getting him treatment, he broke out into laughter,” says Ingle, who has counseled death row inmates for more than 40 years. “At first I was surprised, and then I realized this is the appropriate response. He is in such as absurd situation that you’re either going to laugh or weep.”
The two talked for a long time, Ingle says, adding that House was grateful for the visit. Then, Ingle recalls a conversation he had with one of the prison guards as he was leaving. It’s an exchange he can’t stop replaying in his head, and that he believes sums up the injustice of House’s situation. “When the guard escorted me out, he said, ‘I just don’t understand something. The Supreme Court has said any reasonable juror would find this man innocent, right?’ ” Ingle explained that was in fact the case. And as the guard showed him out, he posed one final question: “Then why is he still here?”
@peoplepowernow: So you're saying gays are just extremely friendly to each other but do not…
Not all builders are the bad guys. Plenty of us build size and style appropriate…
It being Christmas time...I worry about Rulpod Red Nose Raindeer' other end...
I don't know, lot guys in Duckwear, enjoy squealing like a pig.....Maybe,he planning remake of…
In regards to Rhio Hirsch's response "Not too jazzed" I have to speak up as…