Heavy wooden doors swing open and a U.S. marshal pushes Paul House into the courtroom in a rickety gray wheelchair. Fluorescent lights blazing overhead make the prisoner look like a ghost of a man, and after spending 22 years on death row for a crime he likely didn’t commit, perhaps that’s what he is.
A baggy prison uniform envelops the inmate’s scrawny frame, and stringy brown hair flecked with gray frames his gaunt face. As the marshal parks the frail inmate in the center of the courtroom and unlocks his unnecessary shackles, federal public defender Stephen Kissinger leans in and asks his client how he’s doing. “I’ve been better,” House candidly responds, an understatement to say the least.
Suffering from advanced multiple sclerosis, the 46-year-old inmate remains on Tennessee’s death row nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared “no reasonable juror” would convict him given the evidence now available. But lawyers for the state have refused to acknowledge any mistakes in the case, instead fighting to keep House on death row despite exonerating DNA evidence and other post-conviction revelations pointing to his innocence.
Finally, in December 2007, U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. of Knoxville decided enough was enough, ordering the state either to retry House within 180 days or set him free.
It appeared justice might prevail, but with just two days left to dispute the ruling, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper appealed the order to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will render a decision this summer at the earliest.
In the meantime, the attorney general argues that the sickly prisoner—who cannot walk or even bathe himself without assistance—should remain incarcerated because he poses both a flight risk and a danger to society if released. Curious to see the inmate in person, Judge Mattice traveled to Nashville last Thursday to conduct a hearing before determining whether he should be freed until the appeal is decided.
Hoping this might finally be the day her son was released, Joyce House brought him a change of crisp, new clothes, which were folded neatly in her car parked outside the federal courthouse. But once again her hopes were dashed. “I don’t think he’s going home today,” she correctly predicted midway through the hearing, shaking her head in disappointment and disbelief despite having been through this before.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case, Joyce House was convinced her ailing son soon would join her in Crossville, Tenn. In preparation, she took classes on how to care for her son at home, learning how to perform tasks like bathing him and helping him in and out of bed. But almost two years later, she continues making the two-hour drive from East Tennessee to visit her son at a special-needs prison in Nashville once or twice a month.
As for the notion that she might try to help her son escape if he’s released pending the outcome of the appeal, Joyce House testified from the witness stand last week, “I don’t even think Paul would want me to. Paul wants to be proven innocent. He doesn’t want to leave. He wants to go home.”
Although the hearing didn’t result in a dramatic release, Mattice made it clear he plans to rule as soon as possible. “I understand the wheels of justice grind very, very slowly. Nobody knows that better than Mr. House himself,” he said, adding that House did not receive a fair trial 22 years ago.
Before adjourning, Mattice concluded, “I understand the state of Tennessee’s great interest in vindicating its criminal justice system, but I think we all agree there’s also a great interest in not keeping someone incarcerated who didn’t get a fair trial.”
But so far, the state has shown no interest in correcting past mistakes, instead seeking to keep House locked away while pursuing an appeal even they admit is a long shot.
In a rather befuddling argument, Associate Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith conceded in court that there’s not a strong likelihood the state will prevail in its latest appeal. But she’s afraid House won’t show up for trial if he is released in the meantime.
In a creative effort to prove House should remain in prison, Smith called the inmate’s primary physician at the Tennessee Department of Correction to testify. But the line of questioning seemed to backfire as Dr. Madubueze Nwozo explained that House cannot walk or even stand, is often incontinent, suffers from occasional tremors and is weak in all muscle groups. The doctor acknowledged House can hold a fork and feed himself, which the next witness, District Attorney General Paul Phillips, seemed to construe as proof that he is capable of attacking an unsuspecting victim.
In 1986, it was Phillips who prosecuted House for the murder of Carolyn Muncey in rural Union County. At trial, Phillips argued House raped the 29-year-old victim in a wooded area near her home, and then bludgeoned her to death so he would not be identified. Rape was the only motive presented to the jury, which used that aggravating factor to sentence him to death for the brutal crime.
Years after his conviction, however, DNA evidence proved the semen found on Muncey’s clothes did not belong to House, but instead to the woman’s husband, William Hubert Muncey, an abusive, hard-drinking man who was seen arguing with his wife the night of the murder.
In addition to DNA results debunking the crux of the prosecution, additional exculpatory proof has emerged over the years, along with allegations of evidence tampering. Two witnesses eventually came forward and said the victim’s husband tearfully confessed to killing his wife during an argument. Experts also determined that the bloodstains found on House’s blue jeans came from vials of blood drawn during the autopsy, not directly from the victim, suggesting the evidence was either grossly mishandled or intentionally planted to win a conviction.
During last week’s hearing, the longtime district attorney for Union County announced he would try House for murder a second time, claiming there’s additional evidence that was not introduced during the first trial. Specifically, Phillips said he plans to show that House has displayed a pattern of violence toward women, a statement that prompted a swift objection from House’s lawyer.
It’s no secret that House pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault in Utah in 1980, but Phillips suggested there’s more to House’s criminal history, although he was rather cryptic. When Kissinger voiced his skepticism, saying he’s never heard of any other allegations against his client, Phillips responded that he would be sure to provide the mystery information in advance of a retrial.
At the close of the hearing, the judge hammered his gavel and the court clerk announced, “All rise.” As the judge exited, House remarked to his lawyer, “I wish I could.” The same marshal who ushered House into the courtroom then re-shackled the inmate and wheeled him out, refusing his mother’s request to say goodbye.
Outside the courtroom, Kissinger reiterated his belief that Paul House will prevail in the end, although he admitted that his client no longer has expectations. As for retrial plans, Kissinger said the prosecutor doesn’t have a case and he knows it: “Feel free to try him again. We don’t care, because the next jury that hears this case is going to acquit him.”
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