updated 1/11/2006 7:14:35 PM ET 2006-01-12T00:14:35

The Supreme Court on Wednesday weighed its desire to bring closure to criminal cases against growing concern over how courts should treat newly discovered evidence of innocence years after a capital conviction.

Originally, the case of convicted murderer Paul Gregory House had generated excitement in legal circles because DNA testing, conducted 20 years after the jury’s verdict, had revealed that semen found on the murder victim’s nightgown and underwear belonged to her husband, not House.

But Wednesday’s hour-long session before the high court dealt little with the DNA testing, which was not available when House was convicted of kidnapping, trying to rape and then killing Carolyn Muncey, a young mother of two, in Union County, Tenn., north of Knoxville, in July 1985.

Instead, the argument highlighted the often messy nature of criminal trials, where defendants get caught lying for inexplicable reasons, experts duel over how to interpret evidence, prosecutors withhold evidence and police fail to pursue all suspects.

High stakes
For the court, the stakes are high. The justices are being asked to account for advances in science by adjusting legal standards aimed at bringing finality to criminal cases, or risk allowing the execution of an innocent person.

In the past decade, Congress and the Supreme Court have taken steps to limit what capital punishment supporters characterized as endless appeals by prisoners.

But the advent of DNA testing in recent years has led to numerous exonerations and raised concerns among civil libertarians, prosecutors and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens that an innocent person may be executed, or already has been.

House, who was on parole for a sex offense in Utah, was convicted of luring Muncey from her home by telling her that her husband, Hubert, had been hurt in a car accident. Her body was found the next afternoon in an area where witnesses had seen House.

Scalia: ‘Much closer case’ with new evidence
Attorney Stephen Kissinger, who currently represents House, said House’s original lawyer had failed to locate several witnesses who said years later that Hubert Muncey had abused his wife, had fought with her the night of her murder and had confessed later to killing her.

Had the jury had the benefit of the DNA test results, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “I would agree it would have been a much closer case.”

But in his questioning, Scalia, a proponent of curbing inmate appeals, kept the focus on one of the strongest pieces of evidence remaining against House: specks of Muncey’s blood found on his jeans.

Kissinger contended Muncey’s blood got on House’s pants when it was spilled during testing by the FBI. Jennifer Smith, Tennessee’s attorney, said the blood got on the jeans during the murder.

To accept Kissinger’s argument, justices would have to find that lower court judges who reviewed House’s new evidence and House’s jury were wrong, a notion Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts resisted.

O’Connor tries to shift debate
Retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has voiced concerns about the quality of defense attorneys in capital cases, tried unsuccessfully to move the debate off the blood evidence.

When DNA testing finally was addressed, Justice David Souter said he believes the semen evidentiary finding would raise significant doubts about House’s guilt with “a reasonable juror,” the standard that exists now under the law.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy questioned the impact the DNA tests would now have on the prosecution’s heavy reliance on the attempted rape in securing a death sentence.

Kennedy, a frequent swing vote on the often divided court, said the DNA testing proved that a key element of the prosecution’s case “was wrong.” At a minimum, Kennedy said, “the sentencing phase is in question.”

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

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