High Court Hears DNA Appeal from Death Row

The Supreme Court hears an appeal from death row inmate Paul Bell, who wants his conviction reversed. It's the first time the high court has agreed to look at a post-conviction appeal based on DNA evidence.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And meanwhile the Supreme Court is going about its business today as usual. The justices are hearing arguments in a case called House v. Bell. The court is considering whether DNA evidence can be used in the appeal of a death row inmate, and we've brought back Ari to give us a preview.

Ari, tell us briefly about this case.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Well, Paul House was convicted 20 years ago of sexually assaulting and murdering a woman named Carolyn Muncey. And at the trial prosecutors presented semen that was found on Carolyn Muncey's nightgown and they said that the semen was probably Paul House's and that it showed that he likely sexually assaulted and killed the woman. Now you jump ahead a decade or two, and you have DNA evidence and DNA testing. It turns out shows that this semen did not belong to Paul House. It belonged to Carolyn Muncey's husband, Hubert Muncey, and then you also have a handful of people come forward and say that Hubert Muncey actually confessed to killing his wife. So Paul House's defense lawyers say, `We need a new trial. We need to reopen this case. Our client can prove that he's innocent.' And the question before the Supreme Court is has he met the standard to reopen that case?

BRAND: And has DNA evidence figured into cases like this in the past? How has the court ruled on it?

SHAPIRO: Well, the high court really hasn't considered it. DNA evidence has become a really prominent part of the criminal justice system in lower courts. Some have said that DNA caused a revolution in the criminal justice system. It's been used to exonerate people who've been serving prison time, to free people from death row, and to identify and convict people who committed crimes. But because this is the first time that the Supreme Court has considered the issue, a lot of people are paying very close attention to this case and looking to see whether the court uses DNA evidence to change or in any way modify the standard for what's required for a defendant to be able to have his case reopened. About 10 years ago, they said that the standard in cases such as these is that the defendant has to show that any reasonable juror seeing the new evidence would find the defendant not guilty. So that's the standard that House and his lawyers have to show before the Supreme Court.

BRAND: And I understand several states have filed friend of the court briefs in this matter, essentially arguing that the Supreme Court should not rule in favor of House. What are they saying?

SHAPIRO: The prosecutors say that there's still a lot of evidence incriminating House. They say there's blood on House's jeans that belonged to Carolyn Muncey, the victim, and they say that even without the semen evidence, that blood and other circumstantial details of the crime are enough to convict House. The defense lawyers say that that blood could have been spilled on the jeans after Carolyn Muncey was killed. They point out that one of the vials of blood was actually missing from the evidence samples, and that another one spilled. And so they say that that evidence is not enough to convict House, that without the semen you really have no case against him.

BRAND: And this may be a strange question, but has the Supreme Court ever addressed whether it's indeed constitutional to kill an innocent person?

SHAPIRO: Actually, no they haven't. They--the issue came up in 1993 and the Supreme Court dodged the question and so people are watching this time to see whether the Supreme Court will sort of unilaterally say if a person is clearly actually shown to be innocent, it is then unconstitutional to execute them.

BRAND: NPR's Ari Shapiro, thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Madeleine.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.