An Inexplicable Vote for Death

Paul Gregory House was convicted of murdering a neighbor in 1985, before the era of DNA typing. The Tennessee jury that found him guilty was told that the semen found on the body of the neighbor, Carolyn Muncey, matched his blood type. The jury, citing the fact that Mrs. Muncey had been raped, said Mr. House should be sentenced to death.

It’s hard to believe that the jurors would have come to that conclusion if they had known that the semen’s DNA matched that of Mrs. Muncey’s husband, Hubert, not the defendant. A 15-judge United States Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati that heard a request to reopen the case knew that. Yet the judges recently voted, 8 to 7, that Mr. House should neither be freed nor given a new trial. They were not swayed by six witnesses implicating Mr. Muncey. Two said Mr. Muncey had told them he had killed his wife while he was drunk.

That eight judges would condemn a man to be executed under these circumstances is shocking. What’s worse is that the judges divided along partisan lines. The eight judges appointed by a Republican president voted to keep Mr. House on the road to the death penalty. Six judges appointed by a Democrat wanted to free him, and the seventh called for a new trial. It’s hard to dismiss the thought that the Republicans voted as a show of support for capital punishment, not on the merits of the case.

For Mr. House, the next stop is the Supreme Court. For the rest of us, his case should serve as a reminder that when we elect a president, we are also deciding the makeup of our courts.

-New York Times editorial
October 9, 2004