Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The significance of House

On Tuesday of this week, even though the U.S. Supreme Court already had released all of its opinions for the term, it still was dealing with unfinished business. It ended up agreeing to review the case of Paul House, a person on Tennessee's death row.

At first, the significance of this escaped me, but upon further review, it is significant indeed. This will be the first time since the advent of sophisitcated DNA technology that the Court will weigh whether an actual and credible claim of innocence should serve as a constitutional bar to execution.

What's that, you say? Isn't it unconstitutional per se to execute an innocence person?

Well...the Supreme Court has never held that it is. In 1993, the Court ruled in Herrera v. Collins that a Texas man on death row named Leonel Torres Herrera had no right to reopen his case 10 years after conviction based solely on a claim of new proof of innocence. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, an ardent supporter of the death penalty, wrote that opinion.

However, in 1995, the Court ruled 6 to 3 that a convicted murderer who had other constitutional claims in addition to an actual innocence claim could get a new hearing even after exhausting all otherwise permitted opportunities, if he could show new evidence that makes it probable "no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

In House's case, last year, the full 14-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit voted 8 to 6 that House's evidence did not meet this standard. The vote was strictly along party lines, you might say: the 8 judges who voted against House were appointed by Republican presidents while the six judges who voted for House were appointed by Democratic presidents.

Writing in dissent, one judge said, "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. Was Carolyn Muncey killed by her down-the-road neighbor Paul House, or by her husband
Hubert Muncey?"

The question of whether it is constitutional to execute an innocent person if he has exhausted all of his appeals is simply not an academic one. People with innocent claims that are at least somewhat credible are executed every year in the United States. And one day soon, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week, perhaps next year, we will have scientific proof that at least one innocent person has been executed in the United States since executions were allowed to resume in 1976.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Paul House case is most significant - I know Paul's mother and she has convinced me that he is can we have any faith at all in a Court or system that will not give the possibility of innocence the highest priority?