Released from death row, but not exonerated

Image: Paul Gregory House
Paul Gregory House, 46, is seen after his release from prison on July 2 in Nashville. House, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, is set to be retried in October in a controversial murder case. Bill Waugh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Paul Gregory House has known many prisons.

Death row. His own body ravaged by multiple sclerosis. A long, legal limbo that traps him between judges who've said he may be innocent — and state prosecutors who've refused to give up.

On July 2, unable to walk or feed himself, he was wheeled out of a hospital prison in Nashville, turned over to his mother, fitted with an electronic tracking bracelet, and placed under house arrest. His new trial for first-degree murder is scheduled to begin Oct. 14.

This time, Union County District Attorney General Paul Phillips won't seek the death penalty. But he still thinks House should be incarcerated for the rest of his life.

For 22 years, House has been accused of raping and killing a neighbor in the clannish, dirt-poor hills of eastern Tennessee's Union County, a place where even in the 1980s, some houses still lacked indoor plumbing.

He was sentenced to death in 1986. Since then, his appeals have bumped up and down a long legal staircase, ultimately reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which questioned his guilt in a landmark 2006 ruling and ordered a new trial.

No "reasonable juror," the high court said, would have convicted House after seeing DNA results, a testing technology not available at the time of his trial. Nor, the justices noted, would jurors have been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt if they'd heard witnesses — who didn't come forward until years later — describe the victim's husband as a drunken abuser who confessed to killing her.

A federal judge ordered House released pending a new trial. But he stayed locked up for two more years while state prosecutors filed procedural challenges.

He remains accused.

Carolyn Muncey goes missing
On July 14, 1985, folks were looking for Carolyn Muncey, a 29-year-old mother of two young children. She had been missing for at least 12 hours from her home, a four-room shack without running water; her husband, Hubert "Little Hube" Muncey, said he was out drinking beer at a local dance the night she disappeared.

Around 3 p.m, they found her shoeless body in a roadside ditch. She was lying on her side, her hands bloodstained to the wrists. Her floral housecoat had cinched under her armpits, as if she had been dragged by her legs, which were scratched and bruised, across the wooded hills.

She had been an attractive woman before someone blackened her eye, left a necklace of bruises around her throat and hit her hard enough to dislodge her brain from its moorings — a blow the coroner said caused her death.

Authorities claimed House lured Muncey from her dilapidated cabin, beat her, killed her, and then dumped her body in a branch-filled culvert about 100 yards up the road from her driveway.

There were no witnesses. The evidence was circumstantial: semen stains on her white cotton panties and silky green nightgown; a pair of muddy jeans with reddish spots belonging to House.

Guilty, the jury said. And it spent less than four hours deciding he should be put to death.

Couple had been arguing
But during the trial, a drunken "Little Hube" stumbled into another gathering, lifelong neighbor Penny Letner later claimed. Appearing "pretty well blistered ... he went to crying and was talking about his wife and how it happened and how he didn't mean to do it," she said during a 1999 federal appeal hearing.

Muncey said the couple had been arguing that night, Letner recounted, and "he said he smacked her and that she fell and hit her head. He said 'I didn't mean to do it, but I had to get rid of her because I didn't want to be charged with murder.'"

Letner's sister, Kathy Parker, was there to hear his story, too. "I freaked out and run him off," she testified.

The women and three others testified that "Little Hube" was a violent drinker who regularly beat his wife, sometimes in public. One neighbor said he'd asked her for an alibi on the night of the murder.

Parker testified she'd gone down to the courthouse after Muncey's visit, and spent two days waiting to give a statement, but no one came to take it.

Meanwhile, new DNA testing produced incongruous results, making his case one of the more puzzling among 218 DNA exonerations and some 115 execution reversals in this country since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Genetic testing exonerated him as a rapist — the semen on Carolyn Muncey's clothes belonged to her husband. But it implicated him as a killer — the blood on House's jeans was hers.

In a narrow, bitter 2004 ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected the new testimony and DNA evidence. The 8-7 ruling prompted strong dissenting opinions. Justice Ronald L. Gilman called the case "a real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed."

Muncey has long denied killing his wife or confessing to it.

Persistance by the district attorney
District Attorney General Phillips is a determined man who's consistently said House killed Muncey to keep her from telling anyone that he raped her.

But most recently, in conversations with The Associated Press earlier this month, he said he may drop the case if genetic analyses now being conducted — on crime scene evidence never before tested — shows a third party's DNA. That is the first time Phillips has raised the possibility of giving up.

Did he and the state of Tennessee send an innocent man to death row?

They had some help from House, himself. Even federal public defender Steve Kissinger acknowledges his client undermined his own case, beginning with lying about where he was on the night of the murder.

He told investigators he'd been home all night with his live-in girlfriend. Then investigators found those stained jeans in the couple's laundry hamper.

House admitted he hadn't told the whole truth.

He'd taken a walk at about 10:30 p.m. He said he'd left out that part because he feared that without an airtight alibi, he would become the prime suspect. He was on parole for a rape committed in Utah.

Dubious explanation
House also had what seemed to be a dubious explanation for new scratches and bruises on his hands and arms: While he was out walking, a white truck had pulled up behind him. Its occupants jumped out and tried to grab him on the dark road, yelling that he wasn't welcome in these parts and firing shots him.

House said he never saw his attackers. He ran headlong through pitch-black hills and brambles, losing his tank top and one of his shoes in the process, he said. He returned to his girlfriend's home about an hour later. That period roughly coincided with the coroner's two-hour window for Carolyn Muncey's time of death.

The account begged credibility — except that House and his mother were outsiders to Union County. Joyce House had recently married a local man and moved there from outside Knoxville. Her son had come only a few months before the killing, fresh from prison. Both were mistrusted by some locals — hard people born by hard country.

That same distrust may have figured in his easy conviction.

"He had long hair," Kissinger said. "He didn't work like everyone else did, he was living off his mom. Then he was kind of living off his girlfriend, too. He didn't fit with these people. And these people are very, very loyal to each other."

Why did some wait years before coming forward to testify that Hubert Muncey had confessed? "People heard that her blood was on his jeans and there was semen evidence," Kissinger said. "So why say anything?"

The blood on House's jeans was a big problem, but there was an explanation.

Dr. Cleland Blake, the assistant chief medical examiner for Tennessee, testified in 1999 that the blood on House's pants came from vials taken during Muncey's autopsy. House's lawyers provided two scenarios: either the tubes spilled on the way to the FBI testing laboratory, while House's jeans and Muncey's blood samples were placed in the same container, or someone tampered with the evidence.

There is no disagreement that a tube and a half of blood disappeared. Photos now part of the court file show blood on the outside of the emptied tubes and inside the Styrofoam storage container.

Living now with his mom
Paul House, now 46, sits in his mother's house about 100 miles east of Nashville, trembling and jerking from a disease gnawing his nervous system. He slurs because of the advanced stage of his disease, but his humor is sharp.

Asked how he was doing, he laughed. "I'm all right. I just had a big lunch."

House says he's not worried about the prosecutor or the future. "Paul Phillips is a fool," he said. "I really don't think there's going to be a trial. They pretty much don't have any evidence."

Phillips still considers House a menace.

"The fact that he has MS and is confined to a wheelchair does not protect the community," Phillips said. "He is a person who tricks others into positions of vulnerability."

Joyce House doesn't believe he will ever abandon the case against her son: "He just don't want to admit he's made a mistake."

The federal public defender says that is the reason Phillips won't let go.

"How can you live with yourself if you admit that you took away the last healthy years of a man's life?" Kissinger said. "That's a big burden."