Thursday, May 29, 2008

Death Row Inmate Gets New Trial

A question commonly discussed (and perhaps debated) among attorneys in criminal law bar is – Would you rather see one innocent person go to jail or see twelve guilty people go free? When the resulting punishment is the death penalty, that debate becomes even more serious. With DNA testing now available to law enforcement that was not yet in existence when some of our current death row inmates were convicted, the presumption of guilt that now rests with every conviction is no longer above reproach.

The state of Tennessee is dealing with this very situation. Paul House was convicted in 1985 of killing a young mother, and he has been sitting in a jail cell and waiting for his day of execution ever since. New evidence, including sophisticated DNA testing, was put forward in the late 1990s. The Tennessee Supreme Court decided in 2006 that a reasonable jury would not have convicted House with the facts now available.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice, Jr. ruled that the state would have to begin a new trial against House or release him. Somewhat to House’s credit, the prosecuting attorney has stated that he will not request the death penalty this time.

House, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, has always maintained his innocence. In a recent interview, House said, "It's taken me all these years to prove that I didn't do it … I didn't do the crime, but I've done the time."

Criminologists, psychologists and even economists have debated the merits of the death penalty. Strong and compelling arguments have been put forward for both sides of this controversial issue. However, no one is going to advocate for the termination of an innocent man’s life. If Paul House truly is innocent of the charges brought against him so many years ago, I hope that the court gives him the justice he has sought for so long.

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