Paul House’s Life in Limbo

Last Thursday, Isaac and I traveled to San Jose, CA for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) conference. The conference was great (as was the weather!), and we will be writing about some of our experiences there. However, in the midst of our conference, I received a phone call from Joyce House informing me that the state had appealed Judge Mattice’s ruling which gave the state 180 days to try Paul House or let him go.
This move by the state to appeal this ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (where House’s case has already been numerous times) is so utterly disappointing that words are hard to come by. Governor Bredesen has long claimed that he wanted the courts to sort this case out. Well, this appeal by the state demonstrates what defense lawyers have long known, that the state loves to point fingers of blame at defense counsel for filing frivolous appeals in death penalty cases, and often, it is the state’s delay tactics that drag these cases on and on.
The courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have spoken over and over again on this case but because the state of Tennessee doesn’t like yet another ruling in House’s favor from a federal judge who studied the evidence in this case for six months, the state of Tennessee makes a frivolous appeal which will cost taxpayers lots of money, and everyone lots of time.
I so wanted to believe that Tennessee would do the right thing here. At the time of House’s trial in the 1980’s, the state did not have access to DNA testing which would have made all the difference. How hard would it be to simply acknowledge that with new technology available–technology the state didn’t have in 1985–that a mistake was made in convicting House for the murder of Carolyn Muncey and sentencing him to death? Are we to a point that our leaders no longer believe that they make mistakes?
At the NCADP conference, we heard powerful testimony from Texas prosecutor, Sam Millsap who prosecuted many death cases, and in fact, told us that all those for whom he secured a death sentence are now dead, including Ruben Cantu, who Millsap now believes was innocent of the crime for which he was executed. Millsap is now against the death penalty because he believes the risk of error is too great and the costs are too high. Someone at the conference stood up and lauded Millsap saying that he greatly respected his courage in admitting his error publicly in the Cantu case. Though appreciative of the comment, Millsap stated that he finds it to be disturbing that in our current climate in this country one is called courageous if he/she admits a mistake. He said, “simply doing what your mama and daddy told you is the right thing to do (telling the truth and admitting error) shouldn’t be called courageous.”
Why can’t the state of Tennessee simply admit the mistake? Is the state somehow above admitting their flaws? We all make mistakes…each and every one of us, some with more devastating consequences than others. We are flawed people who create flawed systems. But, when we refuse to acknowledge those flaws, everyone loses.
Who loses here? Obviously Paul House whose adult life has been spent on death row for a crime which all the evidence now indicates he didn’t commit–who now sits in a wheelchair unable to feed himself as his body withers away with multiple sclerosis; Joyce House, his mother, who has spent her life advocating for her son, attempting to keep hope alive for him when doors continue to slam in his face; citizens of this state whose tax dollars are wasted keeping House in prison and on frivolous appeals by the state when police officers don’t have the resources that they need and Tennesseans can’t get health care; and the state government loses as well, as more and more Tennesseans question the “justice” of the criminal justice system and who it really serves.
Though those of us who have put our hearts and lives into this fight for Paul House are down right now, we are not out. We are not out because I believe like Martin Luther King Jr. believed that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” In the same speech from which the previous quote was taken, King goes on to say that, “We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right as we were singing earlier today, ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future. And behind the dim unknown stands God, Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.'”
Injustice will not prevail. We shall overcome in this battle for House’s freedom. We shall overcome in this battle against the death penalty. Not because of who we are but because of who God is–a God of justice and mercy. We shall overcome.

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