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Courts, Crime, Controversy and we the people…

March 25, 2012
United States Supreme Court building.

United States Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paul House spent over 20 years on death row for the murder of Carolyn Muncey.  A murder which he did not commit.  It took two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court, in House v. Bell, granted House’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  Due only to the availability of newly revealed DNA evidence that now cast major doubt on his conviction.  There were other serious reasons as well to question his conviction but none of these was pursued during his trial… following which, Paul House was sent to death row based on nothing but circumstantial evidence.

In post-trial proceedings, House’s attorneys presented evidence that Mr. Muncey, the victim’s husband; himself could have been the murderer.  House’s attorneys then produced evidence from multiple sources suggesting that Mr. Muncey regularly abused his wife.  Moreover, two witnesses at House’s habeas hearing testified that, around the time of House’s trial, Mr. Muncey had confessed to the crime.  One witness recalled that she and “some family members and some friends [were] sitting around drinking” at her trailer when Mr. Muncey “just walked in and sit down.”  Muncey, who had evidently been drinking heavily, began “rambling off . . . talking about what happened to his wife and how it happened and he didn’t mean to do it.”  According to the witness, Mr. Muncey “said [he and Mrs. Muncey] had been into [an] argument and he slapped her and she fell and hit her head and it killed her and he didn’t mean for it to happen.”  The witness then said she “freaked out and run him off.”  Though available at the time of his initial trial this testimony was never heard by the jury.

Two witnesses say the victim’s husband, Hubert ”Little Hube” Muncey, confessed to killing his wife accidentally after he had been out at the local community center, drinking and dancing.  The DNA evidence from the semen found on Carolyn Muncey’s underclothes proved that House was not a rapist; but rather, it had come from her husband. And it has since been shown that the victim’s blood was not spattered on House’s jeans during the homicide, but later in the crime lab

‘I speak of the criminals who get caught… as distinguished from… the criminals who catch them. ‘– Clarence S. Darrow, 1902

But never mind all of that…  On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed House’s conviction and sentence, calling the evidence against House “circumstantial” but “quite strong”.  He then filed a second post-conviction petition in state court reasserting his ineffective-assistance claim.  Following extensive litigation as to whether House’s claims were procedurally defaulted, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that House’s claims…“were barred under a state statute providing that claims not raised in prior post-conviction proceedings are presumptively waived.”  Oh, the games people play…

In 2006 the United States Supreme Court recognized a “miscarriage of justice” [sometimes knowing one when they see it, other times… not so much] exception to the above rule for “extraordinary cases” re a 1995 decision, Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298.  That decision held prisoners asserting innocence as a gateway to federal review of defaulted claims must establish that, in light of new evidence, “it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”.  In House v. Bell, the Supreme Court found that House’s arguments based on new DNA were sufficient to meet the Schlup standard, thus in the case of Paul House “no reasonable juror viewing the record as a whole would lack reasonable doubt.”   Yet three more years would pass before House would be a free man.

Finally, in May, 2009, District Attorney Paul Phillips dropped all charges as reason overcame embarrassment and spite at having been caught convicting and incarcerating an innocent man… for twenty-three years…  making House the 132nd person freed from death row nationwide and the second person freed from death row in the state of Tennessee.

Although the prosecutor still insisted he believes that House had some role in Muncey’s murder; he now has sufficient doubt… that upon hearing “all” the evidence in the case… any jury would ever convict him again.

It would appear righteousness and the pursuit of justice is only a priority beneath the stipulation that it is both easy and convenient for the prosecution.  So much then for his cri de Coeur… of uprightness in his untiring search for the truth.

This matter draws attention to but one of the many glaring inconsistencies between the realities of the “Law on Books” vs. “Law in Action” as it regards the Criminal Justice System in general, and more specifically the alleged merits of the Death Penalty.

Contextually, bearing in mind the death penalties long history in the appellate process this case is useful, as to the question of why there so much complication concerning something which is, according to so many people supposedly so “simple and right”.  In addition, it helps highlight a number of blatant pitfalls in the Criminal Justice System.  Specifically a need for assiduousness and fair play in our due process scheme generally, but especially in Capital cases where the finality of the outcome is irrevocable.

To date… one hundred and thirty-nine people… that we know of … have been wrongly convicted of capital crimes and condemned to death in US courts… i.e. acknowledged on the record by the authorities to have been… innocent of the crime for which they were accused, tried, sentenced, and in some cases executed.

All exonerated… after a supposedly rigorous search for the truth, somehow… incomprehensively found them guilty of something… they did not do.  There are no do-overs after someone’s dead…

Meaning that tragically some of these exonerations’ were posthumous due to the execution of the sentence or some other cause of death while the innocent person remained in prison.  A truly bitter pill so to speak, but then… Justice Delayed is Justice Deniedliterally in these cases.

Some might cry “oh-well” the system is not perfect or say its “the best we can do”.  I am not one of these, believing that we as a democratic have society the highest obligation to see that the “Law in Action” as closely mirrors the “Law on Books” as is possible, not just as close as is “practically” possible, or “reasonably” possible, but as is humanly possible.  And, to my way of thinking is very close indeed.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to [this] great task remaining before us”— that if we as citizens wish to continue living within a truly functioning democracy we must unflinchingly step forward to pay in full the price required for its maintenance, morally as well as monetarily…  Just as our Forefathers, as witnessed by the hazards of the actions they took in forming this Nation as well as their ensuring for it… the chance for survival.  Perceiving fully as they did this that the creeds, principles, and ideals they sought to craft into a Constitution were more than just mere words and symbols, they were in truth the very desiderate of the Nations soul…  Without which to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln once more, “that government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people, shall not perish from the earth.  Perhaps we owe them as well as untold others who have through the many years since paid with their lives protecting these principles, that we should become in thought and deed as well invested today in this society as they were then.

On the other hand should you find these reasons to be insufficient, surely then we owe it to ourselves and those we treasure in seeing to it that all care and effort be taken should they or we find our… liberty… possessions… or lives… placed into jeopardy by the organs of our civil authorities.  Upon having empowered them and owing to the fact these lawful powers and the exercise thereof is derived on and by our willing consent that they should oversee these and other affairs on our behalf, that so it is we have a clear and direct liability for the nature of these said institutions of state… including their  judgments, operations, and activities.

The power of the state is vast, having in it no conscious or qualms crushing guilty or innocent alike in pursuit of its ends.  Nevertheless, for those who recognize injustice but are stymied in finding a solution one need look no further for this answer than the nearest mirror … to see that it is you, them, and I… who hold the key.

Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
  Jonathan Donne

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