Blood Trail Is Crux of Forensic Mystery

By Charles Lane
Monday, February 6, 2006

Paul Gregory House has been on Tennessee's death row for 20 years. On Jan. 11, his lawyer told the Supreme Court that House is an innocent man, convicted by phony forensic evidence.

But independent experts say House has presented the court with junk science.

Pathologist Cleland Blake, the only expert witness for House's claim that the murder victim's blood was planted or spilled on House's blue jeans by the police, misstated basic science, they said.

"If he were to get up in front of a group of scientists knowledgeable about this stuff -- and there are about a dozen of us -- they would laugh him out of the meeting room," said Edward T. Blake (no relation), an expert on blood analysis at Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, Calif., who has reviewed the case.

Cleland Blake's testimony is pivotal because there is no dispute that the blood on House's pants belongs to Carolyn Muncey, who was beaten to death in July 1985. The issue is how it got there. At oral argument, House's lawyer, Stephen M. Kissinger, touted Blake's testimony; justices focused on it.

"I do think it turns on this. A lot does," Justice Stephen G. Breyer said.

A Tennessee jury convicted House, a paroled rapist, of murder and sentenced him to death in February 1986. His appeals have failed, most recently by a razor-thin 8 to 7 margin at a Cincinnati-based federal appeals court.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case to clarify rules for "actual innocence" claims.

Police officers did carry the jeans and four tubes of blood drawn from Muncey at autopsy to the FBI lab shortly after her death. The state has conceded that a portion of the autopsy blood is missing. But officials, citing their own expert testimony, say it did not go astray before the FBI finished testing the jeans.

House's lawyers retained Cleland Blake, an assistant chief Tennessee medical examiner, in 1998. He reviewed the 1985 FBI report.

In 1985, DNA testing was not widely available. Forensic scientists instead identified blood by certain enzymes that vary with each individual's genetic makeup. Outside the body, blood decomposes, making the enzymes more difficult to detect. When he tested the autopsy blood and the stains on the jeans, the FBI serologist detected only a few enzymes in each.

At a 1999 federal court hearing, Cleland Blake testified this meant both the autopsy blood and the stain on the jeans had decomposed to the same extent. That was suspicious, he said, because blood does not continue to break down once it stains cloth. Thus, the blood on the jeans probably came from the autopsy sample, he said.

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