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Judge: Retry death row inmate or free him

A federal judge on Wednesday gave the state of Tennessee until June 17 to retry or a death row inmate who likely is not guilty, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Death Row Limbo
Death row inmate Paul House talks during an interview at the Louis M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville, Tenn., in April.Mark Humphrey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Multiple sclerosis has Paul House in a wheelchair. A tenacious prosecutor has him on death row, deemed too dangerous to be released two years after the U.S. Supreme Court said he likely is not guilty.

That closely watched ruling, which made it easier for inmates to get new hearings on DNA evidence that emerges after their trials, and the fallout from it have left House in limbo while a prosecutor methodically battles every effort from the courts to have him retried.

U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. on Wednesday gave the state of Tennessee until June 17 to retry or free House.

District Attorney Paul Phillips said after Wednesday's hearing that he will be ready to begin House's retrial by the deadline. He also said he won't seek the death penalty again.

Federal judges, under an order from the U.S. Supreme Court, had already reviewed the case and concluded that new evidence raises reasonable doubt about House's guilt.

And still House, 46, remained locked up in a Nashville prison.

"The Supreme Court has said, 'You just got the wrong person.' You would think ... that there would be some respect for that situation," said Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, who has heard portions of House's case and believes he is not guilty of murder.

Prosecutor not convinced
Phillips said he plans to retry House with old evidence from the first trial and some new evidence he would not describe. He promises he has "proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. House is guilty or we would not be re-prosecuting him."

For House's mother, it's hard not to think the state is delaying on purpose.

"What I really think, and I'm not the only one, is they just want him to linger in there until he dies. Then it will all go away, they think," Joyce House said recently at her white ranch-style home in Crossville, a town of about 10,000 some 100 miles east of Nashville.

Phillips denied prosecutors are intentionally putting off the case and noted the inmate's doctor testified House could live for decades with his illness.

"They just don't want to admit they made a mistake," Joyce House said. "They're not the only state that's ever made a mistake."

The Carolyn Muncey case
House entered state prison Feb. 8, 1986, with a death sentence for the 1985 slaying of Carolyn Muncey, a young mother of two whose badly beaten body was found near her Union County home in eastern Tennessee. But House adamantly maintains he did not kill her.

In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court concluded in June 2006 that reasonable jurors wouldn't have convicted House if they had seen what DNA tests revealed in the late 1990s.

Semen collected from Muncey's nightgown and panties belonged to her husband, undercutting the premise that House murdered her during a sexual assault. The court also said House's lawyers offered new witnesses who provided "substantial evidence pointing to a different suspect."

The justices were referring to the victim's husband and House's former friend, Hubert Muncey. Besides the DNA testing on the semen, five witnesses came forward many years after the trial and gave testimony implicating Hubert Muncey.

The Associated Press tried several times to reach Hubert Muncey by phone at his home in Maynardville, Tennessee. He remarried 13 years ago and his wife, Joann, said her husband has changed, is "into church now" and "not for anyone being put to death." She said Hubert Muncey is not upset by House's possible release but doesn't want him "bothering" their family.

'I've done the time'
In December, Mattice ordered the state to retry House within 180 days or release him. The state appealed, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — including Merritt — affirmed Mattice and the state finally dropped its challenges.

In a recent prison interview, House said he has lost all faith in the criminal justice system. Embittered and cynical, he looks older than he is. He can't walk or stand and has trouble speaking because of the multiple sclerosis, an incurable nervous system disorder that he contracted 10 years ago.

"It's taken me all these years to prove that I didn't do it. And I don't have another 20 years to invest," House said. "I didn't do the crime, but I've done the time."

Justice and bowl of chili verde
Joyce House said her son wants two things when he gets out of prison: his favorite dish, chili verde, and a bedroom with windows so he can enjoy something he's missed for close to half his life — a view.

In her home, two bedroom windows look west over a farm filled with hogs, turkeys and cows and rolling green hills. House's mother has been preparing that room for him and taking medical classes to help care for him.

"I always thought he'd come home eventually," Joyce House said. "I didn't think it would take this long though. Whenever you're innocent, eventually the justice system works. But it shouldn't take 22 years."