Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I am glad to see this story has been making the rounds on all the major news websites today. But it really shouldn't take this much media attention to get a district attorney's office to get around to retrying a case after a court order.

Man on death row despite high court ruling Multiple sclerosis has Paul House in a wheelchair. A tenacious prosecutor has him on death row, deemed too dangerous to be released two years after the U.S. Supreme Court said he likely isn't guilty.

It never ceases to amaze me how some prosecutors will fight tooth and nail against letting go of a conviction that nobody else has any confidence in. Now, in this case, the DNA evidence certainly does not prove Mr. House did not commit the murder. I acknowledge that. The presence of what we now know was her husband's semen does not prove anything about who did or did not kill her. But, the state's theory at trial was that House killed her in connection with a sexual assault. That theory was based on the fact that they knew semen was present. But in 1985, the tests to determine whose semen that was did not exist. So it stands to reason that the verdict might not be the same had the jury known that the state's theory was wrong.

In light of the new DNA testing which goes against the state's entire theory of the case at trial, and new evidence pointing to the victim's husband, the U.S. Supreme Court expressed no confidence in the verdict. A U.S. District judge has ordered the state of Tennessee to retry Mr. House or release him. Why hasn't anything happened yet? The D.A. has insisted he will take the case back to trial, though he has decided not to seek the death penalty again. How generous.

The defendant's mother thinks the state is secretly hoping that Mr. House, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 10 years into his stint on death row, will quietly die before a public re-trial that might well end in an acquittal.

Why don't we demand more from our prosecuting attorneys, who are public servants after all? Multiple judges at various levels have expressed the belief that Mr. House is more than likely not guilty. The state's theory of the crime as a rape-murder has no support in the evidence. There appears to be credible evidence pointing to another suspect. I think we should expect prosecutors to take action quickly when a case like this, especially involving a death sentence, is questioned on so many levels.

It is possible that the prosecution knows far more about this case than I do and does have a good-faith reason to believe Mr. House is guilty of this murder. But if that's the case, then let a new jury hear all that good evidence of guilt you've got. It's the height of arrogance for a prosecutor to think his judgement of the evidence is superior to all others: judges, the media, even possible future juries. It isn't the role of a prosecutor to decide definitively who is and is not guilty. The role of the prosecutor is to produce evidence to a jury so the jury can decide if a particular individual is or is not guilty.

If the prosecution is delaying because they are concerned that they won't be able to get another guilty verdict, well, that's just all the more reason for acting quickly to retry Mr. House or flat-out release him. If you can't convince a jury that he's guilty, the only just result is an acquittal. Is it too much for me to expect prosecuting attorneys across this country to understand that?

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