High Court to Consider Death Penalty Case

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; 12:44 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said Tuesday it would consider the appeal of a Tennessee death row inmate who claims that new DNA evidence may vindicate him, in a case that will decide when people should get a fresh chance to prove their innocence.

The court's decision keeps Tennessee from executing Paul House while his case is reviewed, and gives hope to other inmates who are seeking new trials.

House, a convicted sex offender, was accused of sexually assaulting and killing a neighbor in 1985. He was convicted of Carolyn Muncey's murder, but later DNA tests, which were not widely available at the time, revealed that semen on Muncey's underwear and nightgown came from her husband.

House is trying to win a new trial. Last fall the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati split 8-7 in denying House's request. Justices will review that decision.

"This will be the first time the Supreme Court considers the impact of DNA evidence on the constitutional right to a fair trial," said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project in New York. "The potential implications are significant."

Morrison said that her project is handling about 100 cases involving prisoners who want a chance to prove their innocence.

Jennifer Smith, an associate deputy attorney general in Tennessee, argued that there is not enough evidence to reopen the House case.

The Supreme Court usually handles several death penalty cases a year. Already, justices are hearing arguments this fall in a case that asks if someone convicted of murder can offer evidence at sentencing that casts doubt about culpability.

The House case had sharply divided the appeals court last October.

"I am convinced that we are faced with a real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed," Judge Ronald Lee Gilman wrote.

"Was Carolyn Muncey killed by her down-the-road neighbor Paul House, or by her husband Hubert Muncey?" Gilman said. "At the end of the day, I am in grave doubt as to which of the above two suspects murdered Carolyn Muncey. I am also puzzled as to why more of my colleagues are not similarly in doubt."

The decision against House cited evidence including witnesses who saw House near a creek bank where the body was found, and testimony that he had scratches and bruises.
"Although the evidence against appellant was circumstantial, it was quite strong," Judge Alan E. Norris wrote in the majority opinion.

The case is House v. Bell, 04-8990.