A Real Whodunit

Paul House in 2008

“We are faced with a real-life murder mystery, an authentic ‘who-done-it’ where the wrong man may be executed. Was Carolyn Muncey killed by her down-the-road neighbor Paul House, or by her husband Hubert Muncey?” — From the dissent in House v. Bell, 386 F.3d 668; 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 20915.

Paul Gregory House was released from Tennessee’s death row in 2008 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that evidence discovered after he was convicted of murder raised significant questions about the accuracy of the jury’s decision and that it had not been considered correctly by the lower courts when House pressed his habeas corpus claim of actual innocence.
 
The state decided against retrying him for the murder of Carolyn Muncey, but did not go so far as to say it thought him innocent of murder.
 
“The new evidence (including the forensic examinations) raises a reasonable doubt that he acted alone and the possibility that others were involved in the crime,” Said Union County District Attorney General Paul Phillips.
 
Phillips, who wrote in his petition that the case against House was strong, also noted the “substantial sentence” House has served – he was on death row for 22 years –as another reason for the charges being dropped. House suffers from multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair.
 
The legal arguments about what quantum of evidence is enough to trigger the concept of actual innocence and just when that evidence needs to be presented might be interesting to law students, but the question here today is if House did not kill Carolyn Muncey, who did?
 
The evidence against House is circumstantial, but quite persuasive as an indication of his guilt. However, House claims he is innocent of the murder that was, in fact, committed by Carolyn Muncey’s husband, Hubert (a.k.a. Little Hube). House’s SODDI (Some other dude did it) claim is also pretty strong.
 
Hubert’s actions before and after the murder do make quite a credible alternative theory of the crime, and when almost all of the evidence against the defendant is circumstantial, a believable alternative theory is something a jury should consider very carefully.

The Murder

Paul House moved to rural Union County, Tennessee in the early spring of 1985 after serving time for aggravated sexual assault in Salt Lake City, Utah. While living with his mother and step-father, and later moving into a trailer with his girlfriend, Donna Turner, House resided near the Muncey family: Hubert (Little Hube) Muncey, his 20-somthing wife, Carolyn, and their two pre-teen children.
 
On the day Carolyn was killed, July 13, 1985, Little Hube worked on some cars with his father (Big Hube) and then left in the afternoon to dig a grave in a local cemetery. Carolyn was at home with their children and was expecting her husband to take her fishing that night. Instead of heading home, Little Hube went to a weekly community dance at a local rec center. Carolyn and the two children were visiting a neighbor until 9:30 p.m., when she put the children to bed.
 
According to the daughter, who was 10 years old at the time, she heard a horn blow and then a deep voice that sounded like “Paw Paw,” her grandfather, asking if “Bubbie” — a nickname used solely by family members for Hubert — was home. The same voice then told her mother that her father had been in a car wreck near “the creek.” She heard her mother crying or sobbing as she left the house.
 
Another witness testified at an evidentiary hearing that the girl had told her she heard her mother saying “Oh, God. Not me.” Whether these events happened in close proximity is unknown because the girl states that she may have fallen back asleep between the time the person came looking for “Bubbie” and her mother left crying.
 
The little girl and her younger brother then sat up waiting for their parents to get home. At about 1 a.m. Hubert came home and found his wife missing. He took the children across the street and called family members to help locate his wife.
 
The next morning, with Carolyn still missing, Little Hube talked with a neighbor and asked her “to provide him with an alibi on the night of the murder,” according to one dissent in the numerous opinions that have been written about the case.
 
Carolyn’s dead body was discovered by neighbors lying partially concealed in a brush pile at the bottom of a wooded embankment 100 yards from her home. She was dressed in her nightgown, robe, and underclothing. Her body had significant bruises, and there were abrasions indicating a physical struggle. There was also evidence that her killer had attempted to strangle her.
 
The cause of her death was a blow to her forehead resulting in a concussion and hemorrhage to the right side of her brain. There was no evidence of a sexual assault, which would prove to be both important and confusing. The medical examiner could only offer a rough estimate that Carolyn had died sometime between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. the night before. Carolyn had a black eye, both her hands were bloodstained up to the wrists, and she had bruises on her legs and neck. The medical examiner described the head injury as consistent either with receiving a blow from a fist or other instrument or with striking some object.

The Evidence against Paul House

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 14, 1985, two witnesses saw House emerge from a creek bank at the side of Ridgecrest Road at the site where Mrs. Muncey’s body was later found concealed in the underbrush. House was wiping his hands with a dark cloth and was walking toward a white Plymouth automobile, parked on the opposite side of the road, belonging to his girl friend Donna Turner.
 
The theory of the state was that the cloth – which was never found – was House’s shirt, stained by Carolyn’s blood.
 
One of the witnesses, Billy Ray Hensley (Carolyn’s first cousin and a friend of Little Hube), testified at House’s trial:

Just before I rounded the curve of Ridgecrest, whatever the name of that road is, I saw Mr. House come out from under a bank, wiping his hands on a black rag. And I went on down to Little Hube’s driveway. I pulled up in the driveway where I could see up toward Little Hube’s house and I seen Little Hube’s car wasn’t there, and I backed back out in the road, and come back towards to the Dump Road, that is what I call it. And that is when Mr. House flagged me down.”

House apparently alerted Hensley that Carolyn Muncey was missing. Hensley said he later became suspicious and, along with another friend of Little Hube, returned to the spot where he thought House had emerged. At House’s trial, he recounted how the two men found Carolyn.
 
“I said–right along here is where I saw him, and I got out and was looking off the bank, and (the friend) got out and walked around the car and he said–oh, my God.”
 
Suspicion in the small community of Union County, Tennessee (12,000 inhabitants) focused on House, a convicted rapist recently released from a Utah prison. He moved to the area to be with his mother and stepfather, but was most recently living with a girlfriend near the Muncey’s home. Maynardville, population 1,000, is the county seat where Carolyn Muncey’s murder was investigated and tried.
 
The circumstantial evidence against House is strong.
 
The night of the murder, House decided to go for a walk at about 10:45 p.m., returning about an hour later, “panting, hot and exhausted,” according to court documents. “He was no longer wearing either his blue jersey or his tennis shoes.”
 
House told his girlfriend that while he was out walking he was assaulted by some men unknown to him. At an evidentiary hearing in federal court held to decide his habeas corpus request, House told the story of his attack for the first time in court (he did not testify at his trial, but his girlfriend, Donna Turner did tell a similar story).

I had only been walking about maybe 20 minutes at the most it seems like. A truck pulled up behind me with, I remember it as being like a 4-wheel drive. . . . I believe there were at least two guys in the truck. I know the driver got out on his side, one guy got out on the passenger side. . . . The driver came up. I can remember he said something, but I don’t even know if I heard him correctly at the time. He grabbed me by the arm. He started to jerk me around. I turned around and threw him back with my left hand. I hit him. He let go. I started running. I ran kind of diagonally across the road into some trees, bushes, whatever it was. I heard a shot, at least one. There might have been two. I am not sure. I ran around through those woods for a while. I don’t know how long. . . . I went back across the road up to Donna’s house. . . . I stepped on something, a sharp rock or something. I knew I stepped on it. When I looked down I only had one shoe. I lost one of them while I was running. I took the other one off and threw it across the road. . . . .I didn’t even notice my shirt was gone until I got up to the trailer.

The shoes were later found in an area different from the place where House told Turner he had lost them.
 
After returning from his walk, for the first time in their relationship, House proposed marriage to Turner. “It was at least arguable that he thought by this means her testimony could be rendered inadmissible by the husband-wife privilege,” the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.
 
Either as a result of this alleged attack or due to some work he had done earlier in the week dismantling a shed, House’s arms were covered with scratches and bruises. Turner later testified she had not seen the marks prior to House’s walk.
 
Years later, Hensley admitted on the stand during a hearing that he did not actually see House “down in the embankment.” During the hearing, House’s appellate counsel introduced exhibits that brought out other inconsistencies about where Hensley first saw House. On re-direct, however, the state and its witness had the following exchange:
 

Q. Let me ask you if this is a true statement–”I travelled about 500 feet on Ridgecrest Road when I saw a’66 or’67 white Plymouth sitting on the left-hand side of Ridgecrest Road,” is that true?
A. That’s true.
Q. Is that where you saw the car?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Is this true? “I saw a man later identified to me as Paul G. House enter the roadway from the right-hand side of the road?”
A. He was walking toward the road, yes.
Q. All right. “And he was coming up over the bank and he had a rag in his hand and he was wiping his hands,” is that true?
A. That’s true.

That exchange was sufficient for the appeals court to write,

However, even if we accept House’s contention that Hensley could not have seen him until he emerged onto the road, it is undisputed that House was seen in the general vicinity of the body carrying a black rag. Moreover, trial counsel effectively cross-examined Hensley regarding his inconsistent statements about when and where he saw House. Thus, in our view, House’s attack on Hensley’s testimony advances his cause little, if at all.

An examination of the corpse revealed trace evidence that pointed toward House. Although Carolyn had not been sexually assaulted involving penetration, semen found on her nightgown was determined to be consistent with House’s bloodtype, which at the time led authorities to believe that the murder had a sexual motive. However, DNA analysis not available at the time of the slaying later showed that the semen was not House’s. In fact, it belonged to Little Hube, fanning House’s argument that because the state’s theory of the crime was flawed, so was his conviction and death sentence.
 
That argument didn’t sway the 6th Circuit en banc panel:

However, the fact that the semen found on the victim’s clothing came from her husband and not from House does not contradict the evidence that tends to demonstrate that he killed her after journeying to her home and luring her from her trailer, nor does the lack of any physical evidence of sexual contact contradict the notion that the murderer lured Mrs. Muncey from her home with a sexual motive.”

In addition to the semen, tests also showed that fibers found on the clothing of the victim were blue jean fibers.
 
In his initial interviews with police, House dPaul House in 1985idn’t help his situation by lying to them. In two statements to authorities, he said he had been at his girlfriend’s trailer the entire evening of July 13 and had not left until the next afternoon. House later admitted that he had been in the area where the body was found, but denied that he had seen the body of Carolyn or had any knowledge of its presence. When pressed for a reason why he lied, House understandably and stupidly said, “I was on parole. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.”
 
The most damning evidence against House is also the most controversial — a pair of bloodstained blue jeans.
 
House told investigators that he was wearing the same clothes on Sunday, July 14 as he had been wearing the previous evening. In executing a search warrant, however, police found a pair of blue jeans which he had been wearing on the night of the murder concealed in the bottom of a clothes hamper at Turner’s trailer.
 
“These trousers were bloodstained, and scientific evidence revealed that the stains were human blood having characteristics consistent with the blood of Mrs. Muncey and inconsistent with [House’s] own blood,” the 6th Circuit wrote. “Scientific tests also showed that fibers from these trousers were consistent with fibers found on the clothing of the victim.”
 
The jeans are controversial because the chain of custody during which the evidence was passed from investigators to laboratory analysts was broken and contamination may have occurred.
 
Four vials of blood were taken from the victim during the autopsy. These were placed in a Styrofoam container, which was sent from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to the FBI. The container was sealed with tape by the TBI in both directions for shipping. A photograph introduced as an exhibit in the evidentiary hearing shows that one of the seals was broken and then resealed by a second layer of tape.
 
Further supporting his theory that the container was opened between the time it left the TBI and arrived at the FBI, House points to the fact that the label on the container indicated that it held both blood and vaginal secretions. However, the FBI analyst testified that he received the secretions separately in a manila envelope.
 
According to the FBI scientist/agent, he would have used about a quarter of a vial in testing. When House’s serology expert received the Styrofoam container from the FBI, he reported that one of the vials was only half full and another was nearly empty. “Despite (the agent’s) testimony to the contrary, it appeared that some of the blood had spilled, although there is no evidence indicating that the spillage had occurred before the FBI received the blood,” the 6th Circuit majority wrote.
 
House’s experts theorized, based upon the degree of the enzymatic degradation, that the blood on the blue jeans came from known samples, such as the blood contained in the vials, and not from Carolyn’s body.
 
The State’s experts, however, debated this point. The FBI analyst testified that the extent of degradation could vary greatly from specimen to specimen taken from the same source depending on how they were handled, and upon other individual circumstances.
 
House claimed that the locations of the blood stains on the jeans were unlikely to have been caused by a struggle between House and Carolyn, but the State’s blood spatter expert also testified at the evidentiary hearing. She contradicted House’s assertion that the pattern of some of the blood spots on the jeans was consistent with transfer stains resulting from blood being wiped onto them
 
The federal District Court summarized the blood evidence this way:

Without question, one or more tubes of Mrs. Muncey’s blood spilled at some time. It is likely the spillage occurred prior to the receipt of the evidence by [the] laboratory hired by Mr. House’s trial attorney. Based upon the evidence introduced during the evidentiary hearing, however, the court concludes that the spillage occurred after the FBI crime laboratory received and tested the evidence.
. . . The enzyme deterioration. . .and the blood spillage, does not negate the fact that (the TBI agent) saw what appeared to be bloodstains on Mr. House’s blue jeans when the jeans were removed from the laundry hamper at Ms. Turner’s trailer and that the blood was in fact from Mrs. Muncey.

Based on this evidence, Paul House was tried and convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

The Case Against Hubert Muncey

At House’s trial, Hubert Muncey presented an alibi for the time that the medical examiner ruled that his wife was slain. After spending much of the day digging a grave at a local cemetery, Little Hube, rather than return home to take his wife fishing as he had promised, showed up at a local recreation center where a weekly dance was being held. Unfortunately for him, the alibi was not as solid as he might have hoped. He claimed that he was at the dance until it ended at approximately midnight.
 
Several witnesses at the trial said they saw Little Hube at the dance, including one who saw Hube leave the rec center at one point. Dennis Wallace, the security guard at the dance, testified later at a federal habeas evidentiary hearing that he saw Hubert leave sometime between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. Neither Wallace nor the other witnesses who saw Hube that night could testify to seeing him after that time.
 
The hole in his alibi points to opportunity, but the courts that have reviewed House’s claims have not considered that sufficient to overturn either his conviction or his sentence.
 
Most damning for Little Hube, an admitted problem drinker and wife beater, is not the weak alibi, but the two alleged confessions he made to friends that he killed his wife in an argument. According to one of the witnesses, Kathy Parker, a family friend, Little Hube visited her on a Friday evening after the murder and after several drinks, “started crying and going on and rambling off” and eventually told her he had killed Carolyn.
 
Hubert Muncey “was talking about what happened to his wife and how it happened and he didn’t mean to do it,” Parker testified at the evidentiary hearing. She admitted at the time that she had consumed seven or eight beers herself.
 
“He said they had been into an argument and he slapped her and she fell and hit her head and it killed her and he didn’t mean for it to happen,” she said. After his confession, Parker said, “I freaked out and run him off.”
 
Parker said she tried to speak to authorities about the incident, but was unsuccessful. Parker’s sister, Penny Letner, also heard Muncey’s “confession.” She had not been drinking at the time.
 
Letner testified that Hube told her that Carolyn had been “bitching him out” for going to the dance and not taking her fishing. He smacked his wife, who fell against a table and died. “He said ‘I didn’t mean to do it, but I had to get rid of her, because I didn’t want to be charged with murder.'”
 
However, the coroner testified that the blow to the head that killed Mrs. Muncey could not have occurred from a collision with a table, but only from a “violent blow.”
 
Letner was not the only witness who testified that Little Hube used the words “get rid of her” in connection with his wife. Hazel Miller, another friend of the Muncey family, testified that months earlier Hubert had said something along the lines of “one way or another, he was going to get rid of his wife.” At the hearing, Miller said she assumed at the time he was talking about divorce.
 
Also supporting House’s claim that Little Hube was the killer was testimony at the habeas hearing by a neighbor that she heard what she believed to be Little Hube’s car – with his familiar engine revving – pulling into the Muncey driveway at sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., possibly placing Hubert Muncey at the home around the time the coroner said the killing occurred.
 
A self-described friend of Little Hube testified that he approached her on Sunday morning before Mrs. Muncey was found and asked her “if anybody come to say anything, you know, talk to me, to tell them that he was there at 6 o’clock…that he had eat breakfast down there (at my house) at 6 o’clock that Sunday morning and he did not.”
 
Finally, Wallace, who also served as a local police officer testified that when Little Hube reported his wife’s disappearance, he didn’t appear upset, and that his demeanor didn’t change significantly when he was told her body had been found.
 
While the testimony was certainly compelling, it was not sufficient in the eyes of a majority of the state and federal appellate judges who have reviewed the case in the last two decades.
 
“The court is not impressed with the allegations of individuals who wait over 10 years to come forward with their evidence,” one opinion reads. “This is especially true when there was no physical evidence in the Munceys’ kitchen to corroborate his alleged confession that he killed her there. Furthermore, the content of Ms. Letner’s testimony, indicating that Mr. Muncey killed his wife upon returning to the trailer, is belied by the presence of the children in the trailer, who heard no such confrontation, and the lack of any signs of a struggle.”
 
Two decades after Carolyn Muncey was brutally murdered, after three state and two federal courts reviewed the facts of the case and weighed House’s claims, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that they all got it wrong. The high court’s opinion was not necessarily a statement that House was innocent.

While this is not a case of conclusive exoneration, and the issue is close, this is the rare case where—had the jury heard all the conflicting testimony—it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror viewing the record as a whole would lack reasonable doubt.

The murder of Carolyn Muncey is now a cold case in the archives of the Union County Sheriff’s Department and looks to stay that way.