Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at Opednews.com and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: http://www.mach2.com/williams/. Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email DonWilliams7@charter.net.


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Don Williams comments

Supreme Court should embrace the power of DNA to free Paul House
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   01/13/2006)

It should be an easy call. The United States Supreme Court should grant Paul Gregory House's request for a new trial, thus encouraging the state to set him free to live out his blighted life with as much dignity as he can muster. The prosecution's case disintegrated long ago, yet the former Union County resident has spent the past 20 years slowly falling victim to despair and the ravages of multiple sclerosis on Tennessee's death row.

If you could see the world from the vantage point of House's wheelchair you might be glad Judge Samuel Alito was not yet seated on the bench to hear arguments before the nation's highest court on Wednesday morning. Alito's career is sprinkled with cases in which narrow points of law trump commonsense justice. It's a sign of the times.

No, in a case like this, you'd prefer Sandra Day O'Connor, whom Alito will replace if confirmed by the Senate. O'Connor has been outspoken regarding the shameful number of people forced onto death row for crimes they never committed. More than 115 death row inmates have been released in recent decades based on new and better evidence, including DNA testing. Yet this is the first time the Supreme Court has considered DNA in a death penalty case. It's past time the court came to grips with this mature new science, according to the Innocence Project. This organization has used DNA evidence to exonerate more than 150 convicts in a variety of cases, and it's way past time Paul House joined their ranks.

If you've been reading the extensive and generally excellent coverage of the case in this newspaper and elsewhere you know that on the hot, dry night of July 13, 1985, House, then 23, made the unfortunate decision to go for a walk. You also know House returned home about an hour later shirtless and shoeless, according to his girlfriend, and said that he'd been assaulted by men in a truck and forced to run through the woods to escape. You know that the next day Carolyn Muncy's bruised and bloodied body was found about two miles away, within 100 yards of her modest home, and that semen was discovered on her clothes. And you know a witness said he saw House near the location of the body. When House was arrested, he was found with scratches and bruises on his hands and arms. Later, Muncy's blood was found on House's jeans. According to the state, House murdered Muncy during a sexual assault, therefore the death penalty was in order. It was a compelling circumstantial case.

Yet, if you've been reading press reports you also know by now that DNA tests have proven beyond doubt that the semen found on Muncy's body and on her clothing came not from House but from Muncy's own husband. And you know that the blood on House's jeans likely came from a stoppered bottle missing from a Styrofoam evidence box that had been broken open and resealed. At least two people have stepped forward to declare they heard Muncy's husband confess to killing his wife and disposing of the body. Others have stated that Carolyn Muncy often walked around black and blue due to her husband's brutality, and one witness has stated that he threatened to get rid of her. Moreover, the testimony of the only witness who could put House anywhere near the scene has been compromised, as has the husband's alibi.

Paul House is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Far from it. And yet the distinct possibility exists that he might yet be executed or else die on death row. Several reasons pertain.

As this paper has reported, much of the new evidence has never been heard in an open court. That's because House exhausted his appeals before new DNA results and other evidence became known. Further, the Supreme Court is reduced to determining a narrow point of law, based on a 1995 ruling. In that ruling, the court provided a last legal resort for inmates who claimed innocence but had run out of appeals. The justices erected an unnecessarily daunting legal barrier, however. They said the proof of guilt must be so strong that not even one "reasonable juror" would convict the inmate. This makes it a tough judgment call, especially in these times when “strict constructionist” and "tough-on-crime" dogma so often trumps other approaches.

In a Friend of the Court brief, the Innocence Project has urged the Supremes to embrace the truth-finding power of DNA science to provide more perfect justice. For those who believe House is innocent, there's no better time than now.