House vs. Bell - Not a Typical Criminal Case

In the case of House v. Bell, Paul Gregory House was arrested and charged with the murder of Carolyn Muncey. He was found guilty of murder with aggravating factors (attempt to commit rape) and was sentenced to the death penalty. This is NOT a typical criminal case. It was so extraordinary in the sense that a man was not only convicted of murder but sentenced to death as well on only circumstantial evidence.

The verdict, which found Paul House to be guilty of murder and sentenced to death was a product of discrimination, a violation of constitutional rights, and a contradiction of the main functions of the U.S. court system. The courts are compelled to practice the presumption of innocence. However, the impression that we get is that he was presumed guilty from the very start.

The circumstantial evidence linking House to the murder of Carolyn Muncey may very well have been no different than the circumstantial evidence linking "witness" Billy Ray Hensley to the murder or any other neighbor within the proximity of the crime scene. The circumstantial evidence became so much stronger because House was a previous offender of the law and a new comer to the neighborhood. No one had grown up with him, and not many were able to testify to his character.

Mrs. Muncey disappeared from her home on the night of July 13 and was found bludgeoned to death the next afternoon on July 14, 1985. Her body was found in the underbrush in a creek bank on the side of Ridgecrest Road in Luttrell, Tennessee. She was in her nightgown , housecoat and underclothing. Her body was badly bruised, indicating that she was is a struggle and there were also some spots of semen found on her nightgown and undergarments. The cause of death was determined to be a blow to the left of her forehead and it appeared that she was strangled as well. Her husband was not home at the time of her disappearance.

Witnesses claim to have seen Paul House in the vicinity on the day her body was discovered and observed numerous scratches and bruises on his arms. One witness claims to have seen him coming up the creek bank while wiping his hands with a black rag, later thought to be the navy blue tank top he was wearing the night of her disappearance. The semen found on the victim’s clothing was from a male secretor the same blood type as House, a pair of House’s jeans were recovered from a laundry hamper at his girlfriend’s trailer with traces of blood on them, and at the sentencing the State informed the jury of House’s prior conviction of aggravated sexual assault which he plead guilty to in March of 1981.

After the sentence hearing the jury imposed the death penalty. “In their verdict they found that the State had established three aggravating circumstances, these being: (1) appellant had previously been convicted of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person; (2) the homicide was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel; and (3) it was committed while appellant was committing or attempting to commit or feeling from the commission of rape or kidnapping.” With evidence to support these accusations, the jury found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

After his conviction, House submitted a direct appeal in Tennessee Supreme Court stating he had new evidence to prove his innocence. The court denied his appeal. House petitioned a second time for post-conviction relief in December of 1990 claiming that he had ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The court denied relief again “on the ground urged by the State: that all the issues presented had either been previously determined in the first petition or, if not, had been waived.”

In September of 1996, House filed a pro se habeas petition, which was finally amended by the district court. ‘House raised two issues in the briefs to this court: (1) whether the Tennessee state courts applied the state waiver rule in such a way that it constituted an adequate and independent state ground that procedurally defaulted his ineffective assistance of counsel claims; and (2) whether, if his ineffectiveness claim were procedurally defaulted, he had made sufficient showing of his actual innocence of the crime, permitting him to revive them.”

House’s first issue that was raised on appeal was that both the Tennessee courts and the district court erred when they concluded that his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel were procedurally barred. After conducting a hearing, the district court held that House’s ineffective assistance to counsel claims were ‘barred on the ground of procedural default.’ House’s other issue was that even if ineffective assistance of counsel claim was procedurally barred, he was able to prove his actual innocence of the crime for which he was convicted. If he was able to prove his innocence then it revives his claim of ineffectiveness of counsel.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Bell on many of the claims. At the evidentiary hearing, House presented evidence in support of his actual innocence claim (House had not presented this evidence at trial). This evidence focused on DNA evidence suggesting that that the semen found on the victim was not his, Mr. Muncey’s confession of the murder to a friend at a party, evidence that the blood from the autopsy was transferred to House’s jeans during the investigation and not during the crime, inconsistencies in eyewitness testimony, and House’s own explanation for his whereabouts during the crime.

House testified for the first time at the evidentiary hearing. He claims that the night of Mrs. Muncey’s disappearance, he had gotten into an altercation with at least two men as he was walking down the road. This would explain all of the scratches and bruises observed on his body shortly after Mrs. Muncey’s murder. He claims he ran off into the woods to escape his attackers and had went to his girlfriend’s trailer.

By the time he arrived at her trailer, he had lost his shirt and one of his shoes. He claims to have taken off the remaining shoe and threw it across the road. When asked why he initially lied to investigators about never having left the trailer on the night of Mrs. Muncey’s murder, House responded, “I was on parole. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.” Furthermore, Dr. Cleland Blake, Assistant Chief Medical Examiner for the State, testified that according to the photographs taken on House’s bruises, some were one to two days old while others were five to six days old. Also, the bruise on House’s right ring finger was consistent with an injury from being smashed, not with striking someone.

House also spent time trying to show inconsistencies in the trial testimony of Billy Ray Hensley, the witness who claimed to have seen House coming up the embankment where Mrs. Muncey’s body was discovered. “On cross-examination, Hensley conceded that he could not have seen House while he was actually “down in the embankment.” He would have first seen him at the top of the bank.” The trial counsel also brought up the inconsistencies in Hensley’s statements as to when he first saw House. Hensley originally stated that he first observed House from a distance of 500 feet and later clarified that this was just his estimate.

Aside from trying to cast doubt on the inconsistencies of eyewitness testimony, House also took aim at the physical evidence that linked him to the crime. He claims that the evidence was not handled properly and very well may have effected the jury’s decision at trial.

Four vials of blood were taken from the victim during autopsy and sent from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) to the FBI. House presented photographs during the hearing that depicted that the vials of blood were shipped in a Styrofoam container with a seal that was broken and then resealed with a second layer of tape. The first layer of tape was also incomplete and only covered the lid of the container. “To support the theory that the container was opened between the time it left the TBI and arrived at the FBI, House points to the fact that the label on the container indicated that it held both blood and vaginal secretions.

Yet, Agent Bigbee received the secretions separately in a manila envelope.” According to Agent Bigbee, he only used one fourth of a vial in his testing. However, when trial serology expert, Howard Bragdon, received the Styrofoam container containing the remaining vials, he took a photograph showing one of the vials only half full and another nearly empty. It appeared that some of the blood spilled, although there was no indication of whether or not it spilled before the FBI received the blood.

Further testimony from lab specialists and blood splatter analysis form the conclusion that the lack of total chain of custody and because ‘the packaging of materials did not meet professional standards” the blood stains found on House’s jeans were more likely to have come from spillage of the vials of blood rather then from Mrs. Muncey’s body directly during an altercation. Testimony also shows that the blood found on House’s jeans was mixed with mud and photos of the crime scene show no mud present and the weather records show that it had not rained for three days prior to the murder.

House not only presented evidence that undermined the case against him, but he also offered an alternative theory of the crime. The DNA of the semen found on Carolyn Muncey’s nightgown and undergarments was a match to her husband, Hubert Muncey. House brought in witnesses to testify of Mr. Muncey’s alcoholism and his physical abuse towards his wife. One witness claims that Mrs. Muncey was constantly seen with black eyes and/or a busted lip. Mr. Muncey admitted that he smacked his wife on at least one occasion. Another witness testified that Mr. Muncey said he was going to get rid of his wife a few months before her death.

House also provided witnesses that claim while drunk and emotional, Mr. Muncey admitted to murdering Carolyn Muncey by accident during an argument. While checking Mr. Muncey’s alibi for the night of Mrs. Muncey’s murder, “Constable Wallace, who was providing security at the dance, testified that he never saw Mr. Muncey return after he left around 10:30p.m. Mr. Muncey claimed during the hearing that he never left the dance until it broke up some two or more hours later.”

Despite his best efforts, the case against House remained strong and judgment of the district court was affirmed. However, in the dissent of Circuit Judge Merritt, he states that it was clear from day one that this case was handled as a rape-homicide. In light of the evidence introduced at the federal habeas hearing, the State concluded that the semen found at the crime scene was that of the victim’s husband and not of Paul House and there was no other evidence of rape or sexual assault.

After 20 years of maintaining his innocence, House finally had met the requirements to “travel through the gateways of actual innocence of both the death penalty and the homicide by completely disproving the motive for the crime and the aggravator (rape).” By introduction of this evidence, House has shown the court that no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and/or found him eligible for the death penalty. The court affirmed that House was to be set free immediately.