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Death Row Inmate Paul House Cleared After 22 Years: What Next?

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on May 13, 2009 9:57 AM

Paul House, an individual convicted and sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of Carolyn Muncey has now been cleared of the charges against him. House's incarceration and appeals took an exceedingly long and circuitous route (he was convicted in 1986), and it wasn't until 2006 that the Supreme Court finally heard and considered new evidence challenging House's conviction.

The 2006 Supreme Court case was noteable, because House managed to establish the very difficult "actual innocence" exception in a federal appeal. House was forced to meet this standard because procedural rules would otherwise have blocked his appeal entirely. As a result, it was not enough for House to simply argue that prosecutors made a mistake during his trial. He actually had to show that if had the jury heard the evidence he was offering, "it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." House was able to prevail and get his appeal heard, but ended up facing even more delays.

Finally, House's lawyer recently asked an appellate court to prevent House from being re-prosecuted for the same offense, arguing "Tennessee prosecutors have 'behaved in an abusive manner' in a number of ways, including delaying a retrial while test after test showed the same DNA results that the Supreme Court said would have failed to win a conviction against House." Although the prosecution argued that "the state has acted with alacrity" the Judge Gilbert Merritt appeared to side with the defense early on, as the Tennessean noted:

"...being more candid than usual for an appeals court judge, [Merritt] said there appeared to be "pure stubbornness and vindictiveness on the part of the state" in wanting to continue to prosecute House when the Supreme Court has said that no reasonable person would convict him on the evidence that was presented at trial.

"All the circumstances in the case add up to vindictive prosecution," Merritt said.

The District Attorney in the matter apparently still suggests that House "House could have been convicted again in a new trial", but apparently was willing to concede that the "substantial sentence" would have to suffice. House, who now has multiple sclerosis and is wheelchair-bound, faces significant challenges in his post-death row life. Although he could conceivably pursue legal relief against the state in a civil suit, such cases are challenging and can drag on for years even if eventually successful.

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