Closer to Freedom 

AG changes course, agrees a federal judge should resolve the controversial Paul House case

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office finally concedes that the post-conviction claims of Paul House should be settled in federal court, meaning he soon might be retried—or maybe even released from death row after 22 years.

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office finally concedes that the post-conviction claims of Paul House should be settled in federal court, meaning he soon might be retried—or maybe even released from death row after 22 years.

“We think there is the possibility of a favorable resolution in federal court,” says Stephen Kissinger, the federal public defender representing House. “We think there’s a strong possibility of it, to be perfectly honest. We have always felt if the court were to look at the merits of this case—which the state had been able to successfully delay for 10 years now—then we would win.”

In what Kissinger calls a 180-degree turnaround, the state recently put an end to years of legal wrangling and procedural defenses (such as the argument that House’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations), and have agreed to let the matter play out in federal court. And given that his client is chronically ill because of advanced multiple sclerosis, Kissinger says time is of the essence.

“I think it’s fairly clear that someone, somewhere, was concerned about the public’s view of justice in Tennessee, and that a decision was made at some level to change course,” Kissinger says. “I’m pretty pleased that the state has quit playing games on the procedural stuff.”

Citing the importance of “the public’s confidence in Tennessee’s criminal justice system in capital cases,” and in light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in this case—namely that post-conviction DNA evidence would have led any jury to exonerate House—the state filed a brief last month saying House’s habeas claims should be resolved. In the brief, however, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper reiterates his belief that “the proof presented at House’s trial and evidentiary hearing…fully supports the jury’s finding of guilt.”

House was convicted in 1985 of the rape and murder of 29-year-old Carolyn Muncey in rural Union County. Years after he was convicted and sentenced to death, new evidence surfaced suggesting he was innocent, and pointing to the victim’s husband, Hubert Muncey, instead. DNA evidence proved House didn’t rape Muncey, and that it was her husband’s semen found on her body. Bloodstains on House’s blue jeans didn’t come directly from the victim, it turns out, but from vials of blood taken during the autopsy, suggesting the possibility of evidence tampering. And at least two witnesses came forward after the trial and claimed Hubert Muncey confessed to murdering his wife.

After considering the wealth of new evidence in the case, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in June 2006 that, had the jury heard all the conflicting testimony, “it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have lacked a reasonable doubt.”

In light of the state’s new stance on how the case should proceed, U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. has ordered all briefs to be submitted by Aug. 20. After that, the federal judge will issue a ruling.

There are two likely scenarios, according to Kissinger: Mattice could either issue an order saying the state must retry House or let him go, or he could deny House’s motion, saying he failed to prove his constitutional claims, in which case House would appeal. Either way, a decision is expected by the end of the year.

Given the ample new evidence supporting House’s innocence, it’s unclear whether the state would seek to retry him. If he is retried, Alex Wiesendanger, associate director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing, is confident he would be acquitted: “I think that the facts in this case are so overwhelming that if a fair-minded juror looks at the evidence, there’s only one way they can vote, and that’s not guilty.”

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