House v. Bell (04-8990)


Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

Oral argument: January 11, 2006

Carloyn Muncey was murdered on July 13, 1985 in Union County, Tennessee. Her badly beaten body was found the next day in a brush pile about one hundred yards from her house, and it appeared as though a strong blow to her head had killed her after a long struggle. That same day, two witnesses saw Paul House emerging from the area where Muncey’s body was discovered wiping his hands with a dark rag. Several witnesses, as well as House, gave conflicting statements as to where he was the night of the crime. Over the course of the investigation of the murder, FBI officials found blood on House’s jeans that they determined was Muncey’s blood, as well as semen on Muncey’s clothes that they determined was likely House’s. Based on this circumstantial evidence, a jury in Union County convicted House of first-degree murder and sentenced him to the death penalty based on three aggravating circumstances. During post-conviction relief proceedings in state and federal courts, House presented evidence that he was actually innocent of the crime. This new evidence included a confession from Muncey’s husband that he had murdered her, DNA evidence that it was not House’s semen on Muncey’s clothes, and evidence that the blood on his jeans was spilled onto his jeans after the autopsy on Muncey. None of the courts reviewing House’s case found his evidence sufficient to establish his actual innocence, however, and did not allow for review of his procedurally defaulted claims, such as ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, or to obtain relief from his conviction. The United States Supreme Court must now determine how much evidence an individual such as House must present to prove his actual innocence and overturn a jury’s conviction and death sentence, as well as how much evidence is necessary to establish House’s innocence so that a court can review his procedurally defaulted claims.

[Question(s) presented] | [Issue(s)] | [Facts] | [Discussion] | [Analysis]

Questions Presented

1.  Did the majority below err in applying this Court’s decision in Schlup v. Delo to hold that Petitioner’s compelling new evidence, though presenting at the very least a colorable claim of actual innocence, was as a matter of law insufficient to excuse his failure to present that evidence before the state courts – merely because he had failed to negate each and every item of circumstantial evidence that had been offered against him at the original trial?

2.  What constitutes a “truly persuasive showing of actual innocence” pursuant to Herrera v. Collins sufficient to warrant freestanding habeas relief?

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Issues

Under Schlup v. Delo and Herrera v. Collins, how much evidence must an individual present in order to prove his actual innocence to obtain habeas corpus relief and review of procedurally defaulted claims?

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Facts

Petitioner Paul House was convicted for the murder of Carolyn Muncey in Union County, Tennessee, in 1986. Brief of Respondent at 1. After trial, the jury sentenced House to death based on three aggravating factors: that House was previously convicted of one or more felonies, other than the present charge, which involved the use or threat of violence to the person; that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel in that it involved torture or depravity of mind; and that the murder was committed while House was engaged in committing, or was attempting to commit, rape or kidnapping. Id. To support their case at trial, the prosecution presented evidence that House was not at home at the time of the murder, Brief of Petitioner at 5, that a witness saw House at the scene of the crime the next day, Id. at 8, that he misled police about his whereabouts and activities the night of the crime, Id. at 9-10, and that forensic investigators found blood on House’s pants that was likely the victim’s and semen on the victim’s nightgown and underwear that were likely his, Id. at 11. All of this evidence was circumstantial, as the prosecution had no direct evidence of House committing the crime such as a confession or an eyewitness. Id. at 3. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed House’s conviction, finding that the evidence at trial was sufficient to support the conviction and the death penalty sentence. Brief of Respondent at 6.

In 1998 House petitioned the trial court for post-conviction relief. Brief of Respondent at 6. Among other claims, House alleged that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at both the trial and sentence phases. Id. After a hearing, at which House presented no evidence other than the trial transcript, the trial court denied his petition. Id. House appealed, but did not challenge the trial court’s ruling on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, instead alleging an error in the jury instructions. Id. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the trial court’s post-conviction ruling, and the Tennessee Supreme Court denied House’s petition to appeal. Id. In 1990, House filed an additional petition for post-conviction relief, again asserting ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. The trial court denied relief ruling that the ineffective assistance of counsel claim either had been adjudicated or waived in the prior post-conviction relief proceeding. Id. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed, and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Id.

After his post-conviction relief proceedings in state court, House filed a petition for habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court in 1996. Brief of Petitioner at 14. House again claimed that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. In addition, he claimed that he was innocent of the murder and that the prosecution suppressed exculpatory evidence at trial. Id. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Bell on many of House’s claims, but held an evidentiary hearing for the claims of actual innocence of the crime, actual innocence of the death penalty, and ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. at 15. 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 four main categories: DNA evidence suggesting 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; and House’s own explanation for his whereabouts during the crime. Brief of Respondent at 8-12. After the evidentiary hearing, the district court made its findings of fact and law on February 16, 2000, determining that House and the witnesses of Mr. Muncey’s confession were not credible witnesses. Id. at 12. The court also found that although the spillage of blood onto House’s jeans occurred after the FBI received the evidence and that the semen found on the victim was not House’s, the evidence House presented was insufficient to demonstrate his actual innocence of the crime and, thus, his other claims, including his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, were barred on ground of procedural default. Id. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals initially affirmed the district court’s ruling in a 2-1 decision, finding that the case against House was still overwhelming and that he had not carried his burden of demonstrating that, in the court’s words, “it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of the new evidence.” Id. at 13. House filed a petition for a rehearing en banc before the entire Sixth Circuit, but the court held his case in abeyance while it certified three questions to the Tennessee Supreme Court to determine whether any state avenues remained to hear House’s actual innocence claim. Id at 14. The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to answer the questions, and on an en banc rehearing the Sixth Circuit voted to dismiss House’s habeas petition. Brief of Petitioner at 26. A divided Sixth Circuit determined that although House’s new evidence presented a colorable claim of actual evidence, it was insufficient to meet Schlup v. Delo’s requirement that “a constitutional violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent of the crime,” Brief of Respondent at 14, because House had not discredited every piece of evidence against him. Brief of Petitioner at 26. The dissenting judges felt that House presented sufficient evidence to establish a “truly persuasive definition of actual innocence” and allow passage through the Schlup gateway. Id. at 26-27. The Sixth Circuit also held that House’s other claims, including ineffective assistance of counsel, was procedurally barred due to the insufficiency of evidence of actual innocence. Brief of Respondent at 14. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine how much evidence is necessary to establish a claim of actual evidence and sufficient to allow review of procedurally defaulted claims. The Court will also determine how much evidence is necessary to establish a “truly persuasive showing of actual innocence” and to warrant habeas relief under Herrera v. Collins.

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Discussion

This case will have important implications for convicted individuals that seek to prove their innocence after trial, especially those individuals like House who have been sentenced to death. House presented sufficient evidence to convince seven judges of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals of his innocence, not only to permit review of his underlying constitutional claims, but also to convince one dissenter that the evidence left doubt as to who actually committed the crime and required a new trial without the state’s forensic evidence. Despite all the evidence presented, including DNA evidence that cast doubt on the state’s assertion that the victim’s blood was on House’s pants and House’s semen was on the victim’s clothes, the Sixth Circuit majority ruled that this evidence was insufficient to prove his innocence, thus interpreting Schlup’s gateway rule as requiring House to refute every piece of circumstantial evidence against him. This is a very high standard, especially when the relief sought is to obtain review of a constitutional claim, in this case, House’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim. With the significant amount of death penalty sentences overturned due to DNA evidence, the Court must determine how much significance this and other forms of evidence will have in determining whether an individual has proved his her or actual innocence of a crime for the purpose of habeas corpus relief.

The state of Tennessee and other prosecutors throughout the United States also have an interest in the Supreme Court’s determination of the level of evidence necessary to establish actual innocence for habeas relief. The prosecutors of Union County presented their case to the jury, who found the circumstantial evidence to be sufficient to convict House of murder. House introduced DNA evidence to support his claim of innocence, but he also presented witness testimony that Muncey’s husband had confessed to the murder and his own explanation of where he was the night of the murder. The federal courts found neither House nor the witnesses to Muncey’s confession to be credible, and held that the case against him was still substantial. The Supreme Court must decide how much evidence will be sufficient to overturn a jury verdict, a finding that usually receives substantial deference from appellate courts, and exonerate an individual that the criminal justice system has duly convicted.   

In addition to the parties involved in a criminal case, reviewing courts have a strong interest in the Supreme Court’s decision. The Sixth Circuit’s decision, especially its closely split nature, demonstrates the confusion in the lower courts over how much and what types of evidence will support a claim of actual innocence. With this case, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to provide useful guidance to the lower courts in evaluating habeas corpus claims by clarifying the standards of Schlup and Herrera.

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Analysis

Habeas Corpus is a mechanism by which a prisoner or other person in custody can challenge the propriety of that custody by appealing directly to the courts. Essentially, the prisoner asks the court to inquire into the legitimacy of his imprisonment. In this case, petitioner House brings a writ of habeas corpus to the Supreme Court on the basis of new evidence relating to his conviction for first-degree murder. Essentially, he argues that the new evidence he brings raises grave doubts about both the fairness of his initial conviction and his actual guilt. In light of that new evidence, the Supreme Court has three options. First, it may deny him habeas relief and uphold the conviction (as the lower courts have done). Or, it may grant him habeas relief on one of two bases: on the basis of the so-called “Schlup Gateway” or on a free-standing claim of actual innocence under Herrera. Although the Schlup standard is a lower threshold, House argues that he meets the standard for both forms of habeas relief.

The “Schlup Gateway”

The Schlup Gateway is a mechanism by which a federal court may grant a habeas petitioner relief by allowing federal courts to review the merits of his claims, even if those claims have already been “defaulted” on a procedural basis. Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995); Brief of Petitioner at 29. That is, if the convicted party can bring new and reliable evidence that undermines the trial verdict to such an extent that no reasonable juror would have voted to convict, then that party can pass through a procedural “gateway.” This gateway allows him to bypass all of the technicalities that would otherwise prevent him from making arguments about his innocence. In Schlup, the Supreme Court stated that in order to do this, the party must bring evidence that raises “sufficient doubt about his guilt to justify the conclusion that his execution would be a miscarriage of justice.” 513 U.S. at 316. House argues that the new evidence he brings before the Court is sufficient to qualify him for passage through this gateway. Indeed, he argues that his evidence not only meets, but exceeds this standard, and that the lower courts erred in applying Schlup to the facts of his case. House explains that instead of looking at the new evidence as a whole, the lower courts examined each piece of new evidence individually to see if any single piece of evidence would, by itself, unravel the prosecution’s case (which was based largely on circumstantial evidence). Brief of Petitioner at 34. Further, House argues it was error for the lower courts to affirm the conviction not just by evaluating his new evidence, but also by holding that enough valid evidence remained to support the conviction. Brief of Petitioner at 39. 

In contrast, Bell responds by arguing that the new evidence House brings fails to both exculpate him of the murder and to undermine any of the prosecution’s original evidence on which House’s verdict and conviction are based. Bell states that House’s new evidence amounts to nothing more than mere “cross examination” of the original witnesses ten years after the fact, and does nothing to alter the verdict that the jury reached. Brief of Respondent at 17. Further, Bell suggests that a piece of legislation passed in 1996, a year after Schlup was decided, served to overrule Schlup and elevate the burden of proof required to enter a procedural gateway. Brief of Respondent at 19. This legislation, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, or AEDPA, allegedly prohibits review of claims based on new evidence unless the new information establishes “by clear and convincing evidence” that no reasonable fact-finder would have found House guilty. Brief of Respondent at 20. Under this standard, Bell argues, House’s conviction must stand.

The Herrera Issue

In further support of his argument for habeas relief, House asserts that not only does his new evidence meet the threshold for relief in Schlup, but it also meets the requirement for habeas relief articulated in Herrera, which is a higher standard. Brief of Petitioner at 45. House’s argument here is that under Justice White’s concurring opinion in Herrera, the lower courts should have granted him habeas relief on the basis of “a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence.’” See Herrera v. Collins 506 U.S. 390. House asserts that the new evidence of his innocence, coupled with evidence incriminating Herbert Muncey, combine to create a body of evidence that demonstrates his innocence under which “no rational juror could vote to convict.”  Brief of Petitioner at 28. Indeed, lower courts are split as to exactly what a party must show to be eligible for review based on such a free-standing showing of innocence. Clearly, the standard is high, but in Herrera the Supreme Court majority failed to articulate the exact evidentiary requirements to find a constitutional violation sufficient to warrant habeas relief. Brief of Petitioner at 45. House argues that the evidence he presents warrants such relief, and he urges the Supreme Court to adopt a standard that would encompass the new evidence he has brought and the doubt that ensues from its introduction. In response, Bell’s argument to the Herrera claim is very simple: essentially, Bell argues that because House’s new evidence fails to meet the lower standard of Schlup, it clearly fails to meet the higher standard of Herrera.

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Conclusion

Under the adage, “the Supreme Court doesn’t take cases to affirm them” (See webpage) one might conclude that the Court is preparing to overturn House’s conviction. In reality, however, the Court may merely see these facts as an opportunity to clarify the standards required for petitioners to successfully bring both Schlup and Herrera claims, and to address the impact of the AEDPA on habeas corpus. Also, in light of the fact that our judicial system provides great deference to the trial court, which gets to see and observe the witnesses first-hand, the grant of certiorari might indicate that the Court still intends to affirm House’s conviction.

However, based on House’s new evidence, the objective reader cannot help but wonder whether Hubert Muncey might be the real killer. Although uncertainty about the identity of the actual killer remains, it is hard to say definitively that any rational jury would find that Paul House is the killer “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Further, the fact that this case has received attention in the national press (among other things, a feature on the CBS news show “60 Minutes”) provides an incentive for the Court to decide that further review of the case is warranted.

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Authors

Prepared by: Daniel Fisch

Additional Sources

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