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Joyce House and her son Paul Gregory House, at home in Crossville, Tennessee talk about his 22-year incarceration on Tennessee's death row for a murder he did not commit
CROSSVILLE, Tenn. -- Paul Gregory House says "Oh, well" a lot.

His mother says it's a quirk of his damaged brain. A sort of sigh, a mental reset, when his thoughts don't crystallize quickly enough.

He says it all the time, though - not least when contemplating a life that took him from death row in 1986, days away from electrocution at one point, to his mother's modest ranch home in Crossville, where she now feeds him and helps him go to the bathroom and get in and out of bed.

The quarter-century in between says a lot about capital punishment in Tennessee. As state officials make an unprecedented push to execute prisoners - at least 10 are scheduled to die in the next two years - the implications of Paul House's life story loom over the state's death penalty system. Dozens of appeals of the murder charge against him, in both state and federal courts, failed to free him, even as he maintained his innocence and new technology ripped apart prosecutors' evidence against him.

Now 52 years old, House sits in a motorized wheelchair, thanks to the ravages of multiple sclerosis. He got sick while on death row. He needs constant care. And though he has moments of lucidity, the lesions on his brain often make him lapse into a more childlike state.

"Some days, he hardly talks at all," says his mother, Joyce House. "But he never complains."

He probably could.

House spent 22 1/2 years on Tennessee's death row, a case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was marred by conflicting testimony and mishandled evidence.

There was a confession two witnesses heard from the victim's husband. New DNA evidence that excluded Paul House as a suspect and tainted blood evidence that was, at best, egregiously mishandled.

He lost years of health in prisons he says didn't treat his illness properly, leaving him wheelchair-bound and a skeletal 130 pounds when he was finally released in 2008.

Still, Paul House doesn't complain.

"It won't get me anywhere," he says, throwing his hands up with a smile. "Oh, well."

But "Oh, well" doesn't begin to address the questions that haven't been answered about his case: Who murdered Carolyn Muncey in 1985? Why did the state fight his release even as DNA evidence showed that hair, blood and semen found on her didn't belong to Paul House? Why does the prosecutor still maintain that House murdered Muncey, in light of significant forensic evidence saying otherwise? What, if anything, does Tennessee owe House, who still hasn't technically been exonerated?

Then there is the deeper question: What does his case say about life, death and justice in Tennessee?

A murder in Union County

Paul House's tangled journey through Tennessee's legal system began the night of July 13, 1985.

Carolyn Muncey, a young mother of two, went missing that night in Luttrell, a Union County town of about 1,000 people northeast of Knoxville. Her body was found the next afternoon, hidden in some brush 100 yards from her home.

She had been beaten and strangled. Possibly raped.

Almost immediately, Union County authorities began questioning the out-of-town sex offender in their midst. Paul House had been in town only a few months. He had moved there at 24, fresh out of prison after serving five years for aggravated sexual assault in Utah.

A witness claimed to have seen House that night walking near where Muncey's body was discovered. Police found soiled jeans in his hamper, caked with dirt and rusty brown stains one investigator thought was blood.

He had been casual friends with both Carolyn Muncey and her husband, William Hubert Muncey Jr., known around town as "Little Hube." They had met at a Saturday night dance.

House didn't help his cause by lying to detectives about being home with his girlfriend that night. She told authorities he went out for a walk and came back with no shirt or shoes on. He claimed he had been mugged.

Detectives arrested him hours after the body was found. He was charged with first-degree murder.

The trial, less than a year later, went quickly. District Attorney General Paul Phillips said House tricked Carolyn Muncey into leaving her home and attacked her.

There was semen in her underwear. There was hair in her hand, and blood and skin under her fingernails. And there was blood on Paul House's jeans.

While technology was less sophisticated, state forensic experts testified that the evidence - blood, hair, semen - probably pointed to House.

On Feb. 8, 1986, jurors took only four hours to convict him and sentence him to die.

While it typically takes many years of appeals for the condemned to be executed, House found himself sitting on death watch two years into his sentence. He was sent there because of a paperwork error, when a court clerk failed to process his appeals papers. It put him five days away from the electric chair.

He was taken off death watch the next day, after his mother realized what had happened and sounded the alarm. But many more mistakes would come to light over the following two decades.

Once, on a visit, Joyce House told her son that she prayed for him.

"Don't talk to me about God," he replied. "If there was a God, I wouldn't be in here."

In 1996, the first answer to her prayers came. It didn't set her son free but it set things in motion.

Fresh eyes

When the appeals shifted from state to federal court that year, it brought fresh eyes to the case. Eventually it fell to Stephen Kissinger, an assistant federal community defender out of Knoxville.

It didn't take long for him to pick the state's case apart.

First, he uncovered two witnesses who tried to tell Union County authorities that Carolyn Muncey's husband confessed to the murder.

"He said, 'I didn't mean to do it, but I had to get rid of her, because I didn't want to be charged with murder,'" one witness told police.

Kissinger uncovered another report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that was never turned over to Paul House's attorneys. It showed that his tennis shoes had no blood on them.

But the biggest revelation came in 1998, thanks to advances in technology. Kissinger had the semen in Carolyn Muncey's underwear tested for DNA.

The results came back with a hit: William Muncey.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by LANCASTEREAGLEGAZETTE
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length



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