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High court to consider inmate’s DNA claim

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will for the first time review the case of a death row inmate arguing DNA evidence shows his innocence.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It has been nearly two decades since the body of Carolyn Muncey was discovered under some brush, just 100 yards from her small cabin in this Appalachian hamlet. The 29-year-old mother of two had been savagely beaten, and her death shook a tiny tobacco-growing community to its roots.

Not long after her slaying, authorities charged Paul Gregory House, a paroled rapist from Utah who lived nearby, with her murder. In February 1986, a local jury convicted him and sentenced him to death.

Long after the trial, DNA tests were performed on Muncey's clothes. They proved that body fluids on the clothes belonged not to House, as authorities believed and told the jury, but to the victim's husband, Hubert Muncey Jr.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in House's case, the first in which a death row inmate has come to the high court with DNA evidence claiming innocence. The justices' intervention takes place at a time when DNA evidence may be changing the way Americans think about criminal justice, including the death penalty; last week Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) ordered DNA testing in the case of a man executed in 1992, to see whether he was wrongly put to death.

Focus on new evidence is unusual
The Supreme Court has never squarely ruled that executing an innocent person is unconstitutional. Appellate courts do not usually concern themselves with new evidence, instead focusing on whether a defendant received a fair trial.

House's lawyers want the court to rule that, in the age of DNA testing, the Constitution guarantees those with particularly strong claims of innocence a chance to seek a new trial, even if the normal appeals process has run out. At a minimum, they say, House is entitled to a new hearing under existing court precedent, which allows death row prisoners with strong claims of innocence to raise separate constitutional issues that would otherwise be barred.

But Tennessee officials argue that House's case is about a duly convicted killer denying the people of Luttrell justice for Muncey's death. While DNA testing may have knocked a hole in the state's case, they argue, its foundations are still solid.

No matter which side wins, the court's ruling could have consequences for the ability of other death row inmates to contest their convictions in federal court.

Everything hinges on what really happened in Luttrell the night of Saturday, July 13, 1985.

In March of that year, House, then 23, was paroled from a Utah prison after serving four years for aggravated sexual assault. In Utah, House twice lured women to a deserted home and raped them at knife point. He was arrested when a third woman found him climbing on the roof of her home.

After his release, House moved to Luttrell, where his mother had resettled. He met Hubert Muncey Jr. and his wife, Carolyn.

Victim’s husband briefly suspected
On the night Carolyn was killed, Hubert Muncey, a hard-drinking grade-school dropout, went to a local dance -- not to a job digging a grave, as he had told his wife. Police initially considered him a possible suspect.

But investigators turned their attention to House when he was caught in several lies after the body was discovered. He told police he had been at his girlfriend's trailer the entire night of the murder; the girlfriend said he had left, then returned shirtless, sweating, covered with scratches and with a fresh bruise on the knuckle of his right ring finger.

Investigators found his blue jeans in a hamper at the trailer, stained with what looked like blood. FBI lab tests confirmed that the blood was Carolyn Muncey's.

A witness, Billy Ray Hensley, said he saw House on July 14 emerging from the creek bed near where Muncey's body was found later that day. Hensley said House appeared to be wiping his hands on a black piece of cloth. Prosecutors later claimed it was the shirt he had left behind at the crime scene.

"He wasn't in our minds until he fingered himself by coming up into the road," says W. Paul Phillips, the prosecutor who handled the case and who still serves as district attorney general for the section of eastern Tennessee that includes Luttrell.

A call to the creek
At the February 1986 trial, Carolyn Muncey's 10-year-old daughter, Laura, testified that she heard a man with a deep voice calling from the road to her mother shortly before she disappeared, asking her to come with him to the creek bed because her husband had crashed his car there. The state theorized the voice was House's.

The jury was told a blood test showed that semen found on the underwear and nightgown worn by Muncey could have been House's.

Jurors from the House trial say today the combination of Carolyn Muncey's blood on House's jeans and Hensley's testimony convinced them of House's guilt. Laura Muncey's testimony was also compelling, jurors said, especially once they heard House's deep voice in court.

"From what they put on at the trial, I had no reasonable doubt," says Michael Boles, 46, an electrician who served on the jury.

Prosecutors did not charge House with rape. But Phillips used the semen evidence to imply a sexual motive for the crime. Under Tennessee law, rape or attempted rape is an aggravating factor that converts murder to a capital offense.

DNA testing was unavailable in 1986. It was not until October 1998 that House's lawyers were able to use it to prove the semen was Hubert Muncey Jr.'s.

Searching for holes
The lawyers were already probing holes in the state's circumstantial case against House. The prosecutor's time line gave House barely an hour to travel two miles on foot from his girlfriend's trailer to the Muncey cabin, kill Carolyn in a fierce struggle, and return home. Hensley, driving along a road several hundred feet away, would have had difficulty seeing House climbing out of the creek bed.

In addition, a package containing vials of Carolyn Muncey's blood taken at an autopsy and shipped to the FBI for comparison to the stains on House's jeans came open at some point, and one vial's contents were never accounted for. A defense expert, Tennessee's assistant state chief medical examiner Cleland Blake, has testified in federal court that the rate of chemical decomposition evident in the blood on the jeans matched that of the blood in the vials, showing that it could have been spilled, intentionally or accidentally, from the containers.

An alleged confession
Two Luttrell women, sisters Penny Letner and Kathy Parker, say that a drunken Hubert Muncey Jr. visited them in 1985, telling them tearfully that he had struck and killed his wife in a moment of anger.

Letner says she kept silent until she was contacted by House's lawyers in 1997 because she was afraid to get involved. Parker says she tried to tell local law enforcement officials at the time but was brushed off.

Parker, now 48, said she believes House is innocent and should not be executed. "We got one innocent death. We don't need two," she said in an interview.

Put it all together, House's supporters say, and there is more than enough reasonable doubt. "Their case was crap without the blood," said Steven Kissinger, House's lawyer. "It has to be so totally reliable to ignore everything else."

Judge Gilbert S. Merritt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, based in Cincinnati, agreed. In his view, the refutation of the semen evidence destroyed the state's entire theory of the crime.

Last year, he wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by five colleagues, in which he called the House case "the rare or extraordinary case in which the petitioner through newly discovered evidence has established his actual innocence of both the death sentence and the underlying homicide." A seventh dissenter, Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, called the case an "authentic who-done-it," and called for a new trial.

But an eight-member majority of the appeals court upheld the conviction, reflecting the potential problems House may face at the Supreme Court.

Even though Blake, the state assistant medical examiner who testified for House, theorized that the blood could have been spilled or planted on his jeans, an investigator apparently saw blood on the jeans before they were sent to the FBI.

Analysts question defense witness
Three experts consulted for this story -- Brian Wraxall, chief forensic serologist of the Serological Research Institute in Richmond, Calif.; Moses Schanfield, chairman of the forensic sciences department at George Washington University; and Ronald L. Singer, the chief criminalist at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office in Fort Worth -- said that Blake could not have reached reliable conclusions from the evidence he had, and that his analysis was probably incorrect.

At a hearing in 1999, U.S. District Judge James H. Jarvis listened to Blake's testimony, as well as that of blood experts called by the state -- and discounted Blake's version. He also dismissed Letner's and Parker's testimony, noting that "this court is not impressed with the allegations of individuals who wait over ten years to come forward with their evidence." If Hubert Muncey Jr. had really struck his wife and killed her that night, the judge concluded, there would have been some sign of that in the house.

At the hearing, House, in his first sworn account of his whereabouts on the night of the crime, said he had been out for a walk when he was attacked by some men who drove by in a pickup truck and fled from them through the woods. The judge declared House "not a credible witness."

Town divided over case
Given that the other elements of the state's case were still valid, Jarvis ruled, the DNA evidence was of secondary importance. Even without evidence of rape, House could have qualified for the death penalty under Tennessee law because he was guilty of a prior violent felony and the jury found the homicide especially brutal.

In upholding House's conviction and sentence in 2004, the 6th Circuit majority ruled that they had to defer to Jarvis's findings. "Despite his best efforts, the case against House remains strong," Judge Alan E. Norris wrote for the majority.

Opinions are divided in and around Luttrell, too, where people still follow the case and many know about House's DNA claims. "It's real plain," said Alvin Merritt, a businessman whose office stands across the road from the spot where Muncey's body was found. "They ought to go ahead and execute him."

But Mary Ann Collins, a former Luttrell resident who now works for the local newspaper in nearby Maynardville, said that the blood spillage "is suspicious to me. And that DNA is not his."

Husband a new man?
Muncey denies any involvement in the murder. His slain wife's photo adorns the living-room wall in his new house. According to his current wife, Joann, Muncey is now a church-going man and has been sober for 11 years.

In an interview, Muncey admitted that he once "slapped her just a little when she called me a son of a bitch," but that Carolyn Muncey "was a sweet person" whom he loved. The witnesses who say he confessed are lying, he said.

House, now 44, is suffering from multiple sclerosis and spends much of his time in a prison infirmary.

Phillips, the prosecutor who put House there, concedes that the Supreme Court's willingness to look into House's case after lower courts ruled against him does not bode well for the state. "You'd have to say we might well have to retry this case," he said.