House release is a long-awaited triumph of democracy
By DWIGHT LEWIS • July 3, 2008
It was 9:52 a.m. Wednesday when the 2004 white GMC Yukon XL pulled out from inside the trap gate of the Tennessee Department of Correction’s Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility in the Cockrill Bend area in west Nashville.
It was a long-awaited ride to freedom for 46-year-old Paul Gregory House, who had been on Tennessee’s death row for the past 22 years for a murder many say he did not commit.
“It’s a great day,” House, drinking a Pepsi and eating a candy bar, said as the vehicle in which he was riding came to a stop before a group of supporters and journalists. They were there to cover his release from prison on $100,000 bond while awaiting the state to retry him in October in the 1985 rape and murder of Carolyn Muncey in Union County.
“It’s been a long fight,” added his mother, Joyce House, who was seated alongside her son in the SUV driven by Paul House’s newly appointed lawyer, Dale Potter, an assistant public defender from the state’s Eighth Judicial District in LaFollette. “I think this is the last time I will be going in this prison. I told Paul, ‘You’re going home.’ ”
Yes, it has been a long fight.
I first wrote about House back in October 2004 immediately after a New York Times story said he remained on Tennessee’s death row although six of the 15 members of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said that he is not guilty of the murder for which he was convicted in 1986 and should be freed immediately.
Eight other judges on the court said in an appeal decision that House should be executed, while another judge said the inmate should at least be given a new trial.
In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that DNA evidence from semen collected from Muncey’s clothing, along with other evidence, was strong enough that a jury would not have convicted House.
And last Dec. 20, Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee issued a ruling that ordered House be released unless prosecutors begin a new trial within 180 days after the order becomes final.
The state announced that it would retry House even though DNA has shown that the semen evidence used to help convict House was really that of Muncey’s husband, Hubert. In early June, a state court judge in Union County, not far from Knoxville, set a $500,000 bond for House, but another judge last week reduced the bond to $100,000. House, who has been suffering from multiple sclerosis for the past 12 years and cannot walk, was released from prison after an anonymous donor sent his mother $10,000 toward House’s bail.
“It’s hard to say that justice has been served now,” the Rev. Joe Ingle, a longtime prisoner-rights advocate who has ministered to Paul House. “An innocent man has been on death row for 23 years.
“The whole experience reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, where the Red Queen said ‘convict first, facts later.’ … The people who are to be commended are the lawyers and those people who have fought over the years for Paul’s freedom.
“That’s the better part of the American justice system. And that makes me proud to be an American” on the eve of Independence Day.
Ingle is right. Those people, such as House’s longtime attorney, Stephen M. Kissinger, the federal public defender in Knoxville, have been on the home front working for democracy.
“He is absolutely innocent,” Kissinger told me back in October 2004 when I first talked to him about the House case. “There is no doubt that he’s innocent. … It’s easily the best case of innocence I have seen in 20 years of practicing law.”
As you take time off Friday to celebrate the Fourth, and as you think about the words of the Declaration of Independence, say a thank-you for people such as Kissinger, Ingle and Stacy Rector, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. Say a thank-you, because they help keep democracy working on the home front.
House case shows more flaws in death penalty system
Posted: Thursday, July 3, 2008 1:56 am
Given his death sentence, the mound of evidence supporting his innocence and a U.S. Supreme Court formal recognition of those facts, it is a mystery how Paul House stayed in jail for the last two years.
House spent 23 years on Tennessee’s death row. New evidence in the murder case of Union County woman Carolyn Muncey appears to prove House’s innocence. Specifically, DNA evidence shows rape could not have been a motive for House to kill Muncey as prosecutors successfully argued in the mid-1980s. The DNA found on Muncey was that of her husband, according to advocates for House.
The highest court in the land over two years ago agreed no jury would have convicted House given the modern-day evidence. In June 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded 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.”
House’s case is another example of deep flaws in Tennessee’s death penalty system that forces for and against the death penalty should want to change.
Clearly, more uniform standards need to exist from jurisdiction to jurisdiction for prosecutors to follow given the state continues to pursue House despite the evidence to the contrary. Some measure of review for older cases should also automatically happen as those condemned to death may, like House, have a real case for innocence using modern-day DNA testing and forensics.
Some would call these kinds of safeguards coddling criminals. We argue that the death penalty is the ultimate use of the state’s power. After using it, there is nothing else the government can take away from a person. If we are going to grant the government this kind of power, the system itself should also be held more accountable.