The National Pulse

Evidence and Doubt


He lied to police and denied he had left his girlfriend’s trailer on foot on the evening of the murder. And he had no convincing explanation for a bruised hand. An FBI special agent told the jury that semen found on Muncey’s nightgown was consistent with House’s “general type,” and a small blood spot on his jeans was consistent with her blood. House was convicted and sentenced to death.

But when House v. Bell, No. 04 8990, comes before the U.S. Supreme Court next month, it will appear quite different. DNA testing has shown the semen came from Muncey’s husband, Hubert, not from House. Blood experts say the spot found on House’s jeans came from blood drawn during an autopsy of Muncey. A vial had been mishandled.

And defense lawyers have found six witnesses in the community who point to Hubert Muncey as the likely killer. One said she saw him arguing with his wife in a parking lot and striking her on the night of the murder. A second said he asked her to lie and tell police that he had stayed at her house on the night of the murder.

Two others said they heard the husband drunkenly confess to the crime shortly before House’s trial. Accord ing to their account, Mr. Muncey said he had argued with his wife, struck her and then dumped her body over a hillside near their home. They also said that when they tried to tell the police about the confessions, the officers refused to listen after House was charged with the crime.

Habeas Relief Sought

House’s claim of innocence comes after a decade in which advances in DNA testing and aggressive defense investigations have revealed scores of mistaken convictions. The case, to be argued Jan. 11, confronts the court with a question it has never quite answered: Are federal judges empowered under the Habeas Corpus Act to overturn a state conviction based on new evidence that casts serious doubt on the defendant’s guilt?

The ABA has filed an amicus brief on House’s behalf, arguing that changes in science call for changes in the law so that wrongful convictions may be exposed. The advent of DNA profiling not only “revolutionized forensic science,” it also helped expose “forensic ‘abuse’ cases involving hair sampling and pre DNA serological evidence,” the brief said.

Lawyers for House say flawed forensic science is especially troubling in a murder case built on circumstantial evidence. “This is a false science case,” says New York City attorney George H. Kendall. “There were no eyewitnesses and no confession. And the motive was supposedly sexual assault.” And the scientific evidence that linked House to the murder has been shown to be false or dubious, Kendall says.

Nonetheless, an en banc 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, rejected House’s habeas petition by an 8 7 vote. “It is fair to say that [House] has presented a colorable claim of actual innocence,” said Judge Alan Norris for the majority.

But, Norris added, that is not enough. “To prevail, House must do more than raise questions about the reliability” of the evidence shown to the jury. Rather, he must show “that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence,” Norris wrote. Because he lied to the police about his whereabouts, could not explain cuts and bruises, and was seen near where the body was found, it is possible to believe House committed the murder, the appeals court concluded.

Lawyers for House and the New York City based Innocence Project urge the court to rule that federal courts should reopen state cases when “DNA objectively proves the falsity of critical ‘facts’ relied upon by the jury at trial.”

Meanwhile, a second capital case being heard this term could give future defendants in circumstantial murder cases greater hope of escaping a death sentence. At issue is whether defense lawyers may urge sentencing jurors to consider their “residual doubts” about the defendant’s guilt. Oregon v. Guzek, No. 04 928, is scheduled for argument Dec. 7.

An Oregon judge refused to permit a defense lawyer to tell a new sentencing jury that the mother and grandfather of convicted murderer Randy Guzek had testified he was at home on the night of the crime. (Guzek’s first sentence had been overturned for other reasons, prompting the convening of a new jury to decide his sentence.)

The judge said since Guzek had already been convicted, this alibi evidence was irrelevant. But the Oregon Supreme Court said sentencing jurors may consider any relevant evidence, including facts that highlight “lingering doubt” about the defendant’s guilt.

The high court will also decide three potentially significant search cases this term. In Georgia v. Randolph, No. 04 1067, the court will decide whether police can search a house without a warrant if one occupant consents–even as a second occupant refuses.

“The outcome could have a significant impact on police practice,” says Jeffrey Fisher, a Seattle lawyer and co chair of the amicus committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “If the court says it is OK to search based on the consent of one person, there is an incentive for the police to ask around until someone consents.” In large families or in group homes, there are many who could consent to a search of the premises, he notes.

The Georgia case arose from a dispute between a husband and his estranged wife. Janet Randolph had moved out of their home in Americus, Ga., but returned in July 2001. She called police to the house, and when they arrived she consented to having them search it. Her husband, Scott, a lawyer, objected to the search. The officers found cocaine in his bedroom and charged him with a drug crime. The Georgia Supreme Court sup pressed the evidence and said a warrantless search of a residence is not valid when an occupant at the scene refuses to permit it.

‘Knock and Announce’

In another case this term, Detroit police had a warrant when they went to search the home of Booker Hudson Jr. However, they failed to knock on the door and announce their presence. Instead, officers shouted, “Police! Search warrant!” and burst into the living room. As expected, they found the homeowner and drugs.

Ten years ago, in Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, the court held that the Constitution requires police to “knock and announce” before entering a home, except in emergencies. In Hudson’s case, however, the Michigan Supreme Court held that a violation of the knock and announce rule did not require the evidence to be suppressed because police would have “inevitably discovered” it anyway.

The case of Hudson v. Michigan, No. 04 1360, to be heard Jan. 9, revives the dispute over the value of the exclusionary rule. Defense lawyers say the loss of evidence is the only effective way to enforce the constitutional requirement. If Michigan’s rule stands, “the police have no incentive to knock and announce because they know the evidence will come in despite the violation,” lawyers for Hudson say in their brief. Michigan prosecutors respond with a version of the “no harm, no foul” argument. Excluding valid evidence carries a high price, they say, particularly when officers had a warrant to seize it.

Finally, on Jan. 18, the court will consider the constitutionality of “anticipatory search warrants.” Under these, police are authorized to carry out a search after a triggering event, such as the arrival of a package in the mail.

Last year, the San Francisco based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the use of such warrants if they do not describe the item that triggers the search. A three judge panel held the Fourth Amendment was not intended to permit general searches, but rather to allow only targeted searches for particular items.

U.S. Solicitor General D. Paul Clement said the decision, unless reversed, threatens the government’s ability to prosecute child pornography and drug cases. And in the case of United States v. Grubbs, No. 04 1414, he urged the justices to uphold the use of such warrants because they describe the type of material that will be seized.


David G. Savage covers the U.S. Supreme Court for the Los Angeles Times and writes regularly for the ABA Journal.


Previous:
A Wider Net

Next:
ABA Notices


We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy. Flag comment for moderator.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.