High Court to Consider DNA Innocence Claim

Paul Gregory House, at a maximum-security prison, argues that new DNA evidence supports his claim of innocence in a killing 20 years ago.
Paul Gregory House, at a maximum-security prison, argues that new DNA evidence supports his claim of innocence in a killing 20 years ago. (Christopher Berkey - AP)
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006

LUTTRELL, Tenn. -- 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.

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.

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.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company