“The state contends that there is a reasonable likelihood it will prevail on appeal…. The court disagrees,” writes U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. of Knoxville. The judge further states that House has been incarcerated “as the result of a trial which this court, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States, has determined to have been fundamentally unfair.”
A decade after Paul House was convicted of murder in 1986, DNA evidence proved he did not rape the victim, a revelation that gutted the prosecution’s case against him. But in response to this bombshell, the state conveniently altered its theory of the crime, arguing that just because he didn’t rape the victim doesn’t mean he didn’t kill her, a brand new theory of the murder that no longer included a motive.
It wouldn’t be the last time the state cavalierly disregarded proof of House’s innocence, a stubbornness that’s endured, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that no reasonable juror would convict him given the evidence now available. When Judge Mattice issued a ruling in December 2007 directing the state either to retry House or set him free, prosecutors responded by appealing the order to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, adding one more roadblock for a defense team that already should have been able to rest their case. Adding insult to injury, lawyers with the attorney general’s office argued the invalid prisoner, who has advanced multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, might somehow escape or harm the public if released pending the appeal. Not surprisingly, Judge Mattice was unconvinced, and a hearing to determine the conditions of House’s release is scheduled for May 28.
“I’m thrilled that he’s getting out. It’s for real this time,” says Joyce House, who has repeatedly believed her son was on the verge of being released, only to be disappointed. “It’s been a long road, but the end seems near now.”
Although friends and relatives are eager to celebrate House’s long-awaited return home with a party, Joyce House says her son’s first night of freedom will entail only a small gathering of close family, feasting on his favorite fare of enchiladas.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Joyce House still had not had the chance to share the news with her son, who is incarcerated in a maximum-security medical ward in Nashville. Given the convoluted and often disheartening course his case has taken over the years, Paul House, 46, is not overly optimistic. “He’s to the point now where he says he’ll believe it when they roll him out the door,” she says.
Such pessimism is understandable coming from a man who for nearly half his life has faced execution for a rape and murder he almost certainly did not commit.
Not long after moving to rural Union County to be near his mother, House was arrested and charged with the brutal killing of 29-year-old Carolyn Muncey. Prosecutors argued the newcomer with a criminal past raped the victim, then bludgeoned her to death to prevent her from identifying him as her assailant.
Years after the trial, however, DNA evidence proved the semen found on the body did not belong to House, but to the woman’s husband. In addition, experts also determined that the blood found on House’s blue jeans did not come directly from the victim, but from vials of blood taken during the autopsy, suggesting the evidence was either tampered with or, at the very least, grossly mishandled. Then, a handful of witnesses came forward and testified that the victim’s husband actually confessed to the murder.
Continuing to disregard this wealth of exculpatory evidence, the state is holding out hope that it will succeed in its final appeal, which the 6th Circuit will hear on April 30. If the appellate court denies the state’s last-ditch effort as Judge Mattice predicts, the state will have 180 days to retry House, or ultimately drop the matter and declare House a free man.
“My belief is that the 6th Circuit will respect the Supreme Court’s finding that Mr. House has established his innocence, and that he is an innocent man who is on death row because the state of Tennessee violated the Constitution of the United States to obtain a conviction,” says Stephen Kissinger, the federal public defender representing House.
Because this is a “frivolous appeal,” Kissinger believes the 6th Circuit should be able to rule on the matter rather quickly, putting an end to the nightmare his client has endured for 22 years.
As for whether the state might actually attempt to try his client a second time, Kissinger isn’t at all worried: “If they were to actually carry out their threat to retry him, a jury would conclude Paul House is not guilty of this crime.”
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman with the attorney general’s office says they will reserve comment on House’s imminent release until next month’s hearing.
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