Testing DNA's Truth

Score one more for DNA.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to hear the case of Paul House, a Tennessee death row inmate whose guilt has been questioned by DNA tests that didn't exist at the time he was convicted. The Supreme Court decision, whenever it comes, will clarify how prisoners can use advanced scientific methods to reverse convictions.

House, now in his 40s, suffers from multiple sclerosis. The MS makes communication almost impossible for him and he needs help with daily activities such as bathing and walking.

But his real problems started in 1984 with the contentious marriage of Carolyn and Hubert Muncey Jr., a dirt-poor union etched in tobacco fields and consummated in an Appalachian shack in eastern Tennessee.

The Munceys had no electricity or running water in their home. But they did have plenty of space to accommodate Hubert's violent liquor-fueled rants. When on July 14, 1984 Carol was found beaten to death near her home, suspicions rested on her husband. But police instead arrested 23-year-old House, a neighbor with a previous sex crime conviction. The evidence, all circumstantial, piled up fast.

The day after the murder, a witness said he saw House near the crime scene carrying a black shirt, causing police to theorize House had raped and killed Muncey then backtracked to retrieve his forgotten shirt.

House said he had been at his girlfriend's trailer the previous night, but that woman contradicted his story, saying House went walking the night of the murder. Soon tests came back showing the semen on Carolyn's clothes matched House's blood type and that a speck of her blood was found on House's jeans. Furthermore, Hubert had been at a dance at a local community center, he said, and hadn't seen his wife. In the end, with rape as an aggravating factor, House was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Fifteen years later, with House growing sicker and sicker on death row, problems arose for the prosecution's case.

DNA testing showed the semen on Carolyn Muncey's clothes belonged to Hubert Muncey. A top forensic expert testified that the blood on House's jeans appeared to have been the result of a laboratory mishandling. Two new witnesses came forward claiming that Hubert had confessed to killing his wife, while another witness said he even asked for help in establishing his alibi.

The prosecution tweaked its assertions, saying that House attempted to rape Muncey (also a felony) before killing her. The state of Tennessee has said it will not investigate or charge Hubert Muncey with his wife's murder. (In a television interview in 2004, Mr. Muncey admitted to hitting Carol but claimed he did not kill her.)

House's lawyers kept it up.

In 2002, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati cited problems with the evidence against House and asked the Supreme Court of Tennessee to decide if he should receive a new trial. The Tennessee judges refused and last October the 6th Circuit narrowly denied House's petition for a writ of habeas corpus by a politically divided vote of 8 to 7.

Observers say the vote highlights the fallibility of the death penalty system and underscores the judicial impact of voting decisions. It's unusual for a court to take such divergent views of the same evidence in a case where a life hangs in the balance, unless political careers hang in the balance as well. All eight Republican-appointed judges on the court had voted against House while six Democratic appointments ruled that House was innocent (another Democratic-appointed judge ruled he should be given a new trial).

"We are faced with a real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed," wrote a 6th circuit dissenter, Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, at the time of the ruling. Another judge, Gilbert S. Merritt, wrote that at least a new trial was needed.

"There can be no doubt that the State claimed rape as the motive from the beginning and throughout the trial, and that the jury so found, and that the Tennessee Supreme Court approved the verdict on that basis," wrote Merritt. "Without any evidence of rape, the State has lost its motive, its theory of the case and the aggravating circumstance on which the State and the jury relied for its death verdict."

House's Knoxville attorney, Stephen Kissinger, filed the U.S. Supreme Court brief with support of the Innocence Project, a legal clinic in that has helped free 155 people using DNA-based methods, according to the group.

"I've practiced law for 20 years," Kissinger said in an interview with the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, "and this is far and away the best innocence claim I've ever seen." He added that he had gained acquittals for people "who had claims half as good as this."

Speaking about the October appeals court ruling, Stacy Rector, a Nashville minister who has followed the case, voiced frustration. "If in this country, our courts have become more concerned about playing politics and protecting the reputation of a broken system than in the truth or in saving a man's life, then I find that extremely troubling," she wrote in an email interview.

If judicial roads are exhausted, activists say they are preparing for a political effort to convince Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to stay House's execution. Randy Tatel of Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing said his group has been laying the groundwork for such a campaign for some time but does not want to pressure the governor until the time comes.

For now, House's hopes are pinned on the Supreme Court. If multiple sclerosis doesn't kill him first.

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