Divided court rejects death row DNA appeal

Dissenting judge worries state may execute innocent man

Thursday, October 7, 2004 Posted: 10:43 AM EDT (1443 GMT)


NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) -- A sharply divided federal appeals court has rejected an appeal from a Tennessee death row inmate even though one judge worried the wrong man may be executed.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled 8-7 Wednesday to uphold a Tennessee Supreme Court decision dismissing Paul Gregory House's request for a new trial.

House's attorneys had argued that new DNA evidence would vindicate their client, but the majority of judges ruled it was insufficient.

"Although the evidence against appellant was circumstantial, it was quite strong," Judge Alan E. Norris wrote in the majority opinion.

Two judges wrote strongly worded dissenting opinions.

"I am convinced that we are faced with a real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed," Judge Ronald Lee Gilman wrote.

House, 42, was sentenced to death for the murder of Carolyn Muncey, whose battered body was found July 14, 1985, partially concealed at the bottom of an embankment near her rural home in East Tennessee. A friend of Muncey's husband said he saw House emerging from the area where the body was found.

Prosecutors said rape was the motive for the kidnapping and murder, pointing to semen found on Muncey's body that was first attributed to House, a convicted sex offender.

But later DNA tests, which were not widely available at the time of House's trial, revealed the semen came from her husband, Hubert Muncey.

Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, writing in dissent, said "there is now absolutely no evidence of sexual assault. The new evidence disproves the motive the jury accepted as the basis for the kidnapping and murder and the aggravating circumstances the jury found as its basis for the death penalty."

start quoteI am convinced that we are faced with a real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed.end quote
-- Judge Ronald Lee Gilman

House's lawyers also said there is proof that authorities tampered with evidence in the case and three witnesses came forward in 1999 saying Hubert Muncey either confessed to killing his wife or threatened to "get rid of her."

"Was Carolyn Muncey killed by her down-the-road neighbor Paul House, or by her husband Hubert Muncey?" Gilman wrote. "At the end of the day, I am in grave doubt as to which of the above two suspects murdered Carolyn Muncey. I am also puzzled as to why more of my colleagues are not similarly in doubt."

Defense attorney Stephen Kissinger said he would appeal to the Supreme Court. The state attorney general's office declined comment.