Thursday, December 14, 2006

Guest Shot: Be Very Afraid

December 14, 2006

Be Very Afraid

by Liz Garrigan

Tennessee death row inmate Paul House, whom the U.S. Supreme Court has opined is most likely an innocent man, suffers from the degenerative disease multiple sclerosis. It’s pretty clear that he’ll spend yet another birthday—he’ll be 45 on Dec. 19—and another Christmas not only behind bars, but facing a death sentence. Since he was diagnosed with MS several years ago, he’s received minimal medical treatment in prison. These days, his health care regimen is limited to a vitamin in the morning and a Tylenol PM to help him sleep at night.

Our question is, what do Gov. Phil Bredesen and Attorney General Bob Cooper take to sleep at night?

They are the two key players whose response to the High Court’s opinion will most affect House, but neither seems concerned or even interested by the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that “no reasonable juror” would convict House of murder given the evidence now available. The court went on to say that House may pursue exoneration using post-conviction DNA evidence, which points the finger at the victim’s husband instead of House. Nevertheless, given that the lower courts are taking their time deciding how to proceed and that state officials stand by the conviction, the inmate’s future is disturbingly uncertain.

To recap the case, the state argued that House raped and murdered Carolyn Muncey in 1985 and that he deserved the death penalty because rape was an aggravating factor. DNA evidence has since disproved the state’s case, as the semen found on the victim was her husband’s, 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.

Any reasonable person would conclude that House is innocent or, at a minimum, that the case against him is riddled with holes. But how did the state, then led by Attorney General Paul Summers, react when the DNA evidence came back? By saying that, well, just because he didn’t rape her doesn’t mean he didn’t kill her. Bear in mind, the argument of rape was the factor that got the prosecution the death penalty in the first place. Not a fiber of House’s hair or clothing was found on Muncey or her nightgown. 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.

New AG Bob Cooper told the Scene last week that he would review the case but that he has “confidence in the work of this office under the previous attorneys general in this case.”

Yes, well, the Supreme Court doesn’t.

“My frustration is that the Supreme Court said nobody would convict this guy today, yet he sits on death row while the federal courts and possibly the state courts argue about whether this man got a fair trial,” Stephen Kissinger, the federal public defender who took House’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won, told the Scene last week.

This newspaper didn’t editorialize against the state killing of Robert Glenn Coe in 2000, when he was the first Tennessee death row inmate to be executed in Tennessee in 40 years after sodomizing, brutalizing and killing a little girl. There was no question about his guilt. And were Perry March to have been sentenced to the death penalty earlier this year, you’d have read no objection here. Testimony from his own father and from a fellow inmate were more than enough to assure jurors and anyone else that the man is a cold-blooded killer.

But the quantitative evidence in this case says the guy didn’t do it. And even state officials who have utter deniability about a botched prosecution don’t have the courage to acknowledge what the country’s highest court already has.

If ever there were a case to disillusion the public about its state stewards, this is it.

Originally published in the Nashville (TN) Scene (, December 14, 2006

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