Last year, when award-winning investigative journalist Sonny Rawls produced a masterful Scene cover story (“Innocent on Death Row?” March 31, 2005) that scoured court records, judicial opinions and reams of testimony, poking hole after devastating hole in the prosecution against hapless Tennessee death row inmate Paul House, we knew the saga wouldn’t end there.
And it didn’t.
More than any other death row case in modern Tennessee history, House’s reeks not only of incompetence and a government gambit of bait-and-switch but, even more sinister, possibly even cover-up and corruption. So it was with a heaping amount of satisfaction—and, admittedly, some degree of self-congratulation—that we read about this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of House being able to use post-conviction DNA evidence to seek exoneration.
House was convicted for the 1985 murder of Carolyn Muncey in Union County. The state argued that House raped and killed her and that the aggravating factor of the rape should earn him the death penalty. Fifteen years after the crime, DNA evidence disproved the state’s theory—and the whole case—as the semen found on the victim was that of her husband, a known ne’er-do-well, not House’s. Meanwhile, experts have testified that the faint bloodstains on House’s jeans were planted, two witnesses have come forward to say that Muncey’s husband confessed to the crime, and evidence was clearly tampered with.
“Although the issue is close, we conclude that this is the 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,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.
After a review of the evidence (or after reading Rawls’ straight-line narrative of the case), any reasonable person would conclude either that House is innocent or, at a minimum, the case against him is riddled with holes. But how has the state, led by Attorney General Paul Summers, reacted? By saying that, well, just because House didn’t rape her doesn’t mean he didn’t kill her. The state’s position is that if House is eventually exonerated and freed, it has no plans to prosecute the victim’s husband or investigate further.
Summers maintains this curious posture even following the SCOTUS decision earlier this week. The statement he issued after the decision emphasized that the news from the High Court means only that House can file new claims in federal court. “It does not relieve him of his conviction or death sentence,” Summers’ statement reads, “both of which the State believes to be appropriate and just. We remain confident that the State will prevail on the merits of the habeas case and that the victims of House’s senseless crime will ultimately see justice done.”
It’s true that House was never destined for greatness. He would never have been nominated for Man of the Year. But, sick and wheelchair-bound on death row, neither is he a convict on the merits. Bear in mind, not a fiber of House’s hair or clothing was found on Muncey or her nightgown and, given what we know of his whereabouts, it would have taken someone with the athletic acumen of an Olympian—which House certainly was not—to cover the territory the state said he did in the time frame presented.
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: if ever there were a case to disillusion the public about its state stewards, this is it. At least SCOTUS has spoken. And Summers isn’t seeking a second term when his first expires in August. That’s something.