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.
"If the victim's blood had spilled on the jeans while the victim was alive and this blood had dried, the deterioration would not have occurred," Cleland Blake testified.
But leading forensic scientists say that is flat wrong. In addition to Edward Blake, the experts are Mark D. Stolorow, executive director of forensic science at Orchid Cellmark in Germantown; Brian Wraxall, chief forensic serologist at Serological Research Institute in Richmond, Calif.; Ronald L. Singer, chief criminalist at the Tarrant County Medical Examiners Office in Fort Worth; and Moses Schanfield, chairman of the department of forensic sciences at George Washington University.
Blood enzymes do deteriorate on cloth, the scientists said. In fact, blue denim appears to accelerate the process.
Contrary to Blake's testimony, the FBI serologist did not find the same few enzymes in the two samples. He found five in the autopsy blood and four in the jeans; only three overlapped, according to the FBI serologist's report. Those three were the ones most resistant to degradation, the independent scientists said. Thus, the jeans stains resembled the autopsy blood because these three enzymes, as expected, lasted longest outside the body.
"Both items demonstrated typical patterns of deterioration and this evidence collectively fails to support Dr. Blake's theory to any credible degree," Stolorow said by e-mail.
"I don't think any one of us would say that the blood could not have been planted there," Singer said in an interview. "But Dr. Blake's theory is not credible, and you consequently can't say it was planted based on that."
Cleland Blake responded: "At this time, with my situation, I would defer to them. I'm 75 years old. I'm tired. . . . I don't want to get mixed up in any controversy."
Kissinger, House's lawyer, did not concede that Cleland Blake was wrong, but said House still has plenty of ammunition: The blood is missing; DNA testing has shown that semen found on the victim's clothes did not belong to House; and two new witnesses say the victim's husband, Hubert Muncey Jr., admitted to the crime. Kissinger says Hubert Muncey is the killer.
"I don't see how anyone could conclude that the blood evidence was so reliable in this case that the other evidence of Mr. House's innocence . . . would not even raise a reasonable doubt in any reasonable juror's mind," he said by e-mail.
But the state, too, has other evidence: House lied to the police about his whereabouts during the crime, and about what he was wearing at the time; he returned home that night scratched, bruised and breathing hard; one of the Muncey children heard a deep voice like House's calling Carolyn Muncey shortly before she was killed.
If the independent scientists are right, and Cleland Blake is wrong, it would bolster Tennessee's claim that Hubert Muncey Jr., not Paul Gregory House, is falsely accused.