A post from the Scene
's Sarah Kelley, reporting from the road:
After spending more than two decades on Tennessee’s death row, Paul House might finally be exonerated for a murder even the U.S. Supreme Court says he probably didn't commit. A federal judge in Knoxville today issued a ruling saying House must be released and his conviction thrown out unless the state commences a new trial in the next 180 days.
Although House has maintained his innocence all along, it wasn’t until more than 10 years after his conviction that DNA evidence cast doubt on his guilt, instead pointing to the victim’s husband as the likely killer. Despite this new evidence, the state has continued to fight his release, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that “no reasonable juror” would have convicted House given the new evidence.
U.S. District Judge Harry Mattice Jr. stated in today’s ruling that House “is entitled to a new trial on all the evidence,” or else the state must release him. In his ruling, Judge Mattice further faults prosecutors for failing to turn over key information regarding the mishandling of blood evidence by authorities, and the fact that the victim’s husband had sex with the victim the morning of the murder, information that would have assisted defense counsel in refuting the claim that their client raped the victim.
“All the evidence that convicted him is gone. The semen evidence is out. The blood evidence is out. They have witnesses now who say the husband confessed to the murder. I just don’t know what else they could possibly have,” says Stacy Rector, director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing.
After learning of the judge’s ruling this morning, Rector called House’s mother, Joyce House, and shared the news. “She hadn’t heard the news, and she was thrilled,” Rector says. “Now all she wants to know is when her son is coming home.”
Although today’s ruling is a victory for House, it’s unclear exactly when he might be released, given that the state has six months to decide how to proceed. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Robert Cooper Thursday says she's not sure how her office will proceed and that the AG needs time to review the judge's order.
House was convicted in 1985 for the rape and murder of 29-year-old Carolyn Muncey in rural Union County. DNA evidence later revealed that the semen found on the victim belonged to her husband, William Muncey, not House. The case against House further crumbled, with allegations of evidence tampering and prosecutorial misconduct arising, and with at least two witnesses claiming William Muncey tearfully confessed to murdering his wife.
In recent years, House—who suffers from multiple sclerosis—has become increasingly ill on death row, and his supporters have long feared he might never make it home.
“It looks like this might finally happen,” Rector says, “and it is such a gift.”