There was a court decision 5 years ago I’ve never been able to forget. I’m curious if other Dopers were aware of the decision at the time, and what thoughts they have about it. A reason I’m astounded is the way the judges’ decisions seemed to be determined by the Party identity of the President who appointed them. I did not “cherry-pick” this case; indeed I’m no legal scholar whatsoever and (except for noting certain consistencies in SCOTUS decisions) haven’t examined judge affiliations in any other case.
- Have you read of the case?
- Were you aware of the peculiar Party correlation?
- Do you think the Party correlation was just a coincidence?
The case Paul Gregory House v. Ricky Bell (Warden) was decided 6 October 2004, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The decision (http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/04a0345p-06.pdf) is quite readable (it reads more like excerpts from a whodunit than a legal document!) Below (in a “spoiler”) I’ve copied an excerpt from that document.
Paul Gregory House was convicted of a 1985 rape-murder and the death penalty was imposed. Eventual DNA testing showed that crime-scene semen was the victim’s husband’s, not House’s; moreover the husband confessed to the crime. After awaiting execution for almost 19 years, House’s claims of innocence were heard by the 15 judges of a federal Court of Appeals.
Judge Norris and seven concurring judges denied a writ of habeas corpus because “factual determinations are entitled to a presumption of correctness.” Judge Morris and five concurring judges dissented, preferring to free House immediately due to actual innocence. Judge Gilman filed a separate dissent in which the State of Tennessee would be given the option of a new trial instead of freeing House.
(By the way, after more than 20 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, House has finally been freed by the Supreme Court. Right-wing cynics may say “See, the system works!” Left-wing cynics may reply that SCOTUS had more important “fish to fry” than the execution of an innocent man.)
The following table shows the individual judges, their opinion in this case, and which President appointed them.
Reagan / denied / Danny Julian Boggs
Reagan / denied / Alan Eugene Norris
Bush41 / denied / Eugene Edward Siler, Jr.
Bush41 / denied / Alice M. Batchelder
Bush43 / denied / Julia Smith Gibbons
Bush43 / denied / John M. Rogers
Bush43 / denied / Jeffrey Sutton
Bush43 / denied / Deborah L. Cook
Carter / free / Gilbert Stroud Merritt, Jr.
Carter / free / Boyce F. Martin, Jr.
Clinton / free / Martha Craig Daughtrey
Clinton / free / Karen Nelson Moore
Clinton / free / R. Guy Cole, Jr.
Clinton / free / Eric L. Clay
Clinton / retrial / Ronald Lee Gilman
The vote was 8-7 against House. The appointing Party was also split 8-7. To save you a trip to the calculator, if we suppose these two events to be uncorrelated, the chance that the 8-7 splits will coincide as in fact they did are 1 in 6435. Coincidence?
Excerpt from Merritt’s dissenting opinion:
[SPOILER]In this case, however, I would go further and issue the writ of habeas corpus because the prisoner has affirmatively established a free-standing case of actual innocence. This is that rare and extraordinary case where petitioner has provided “a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence’” that should free the prisoner immediately. Herrera, 506 U.S. at 417. Through extremely persuasive and affirmative evidence that Mr. Muncey killed his wife, House has shown that it is highly probable that he is completely innocent of any wrongdoing whatever. There is no reasonable basis for disbelieving the six witnesses who now incriminate Mr. Muncey as the perpetrator of the crime. The most compelling part of this new testimony involves his confession to the murder in front of two witnesses who have no connection to House and no bias against Mr. Muncey. Furthermore, before his wife’s body was even located, he solicited a neighbor to fabricate an alibi on his behalf. He was heard returning home around the time of the murder. And considering his history of domestic violence and his wife’s plans to leave him he had a motive to kill. In contrast, there is no evidence of a motive for House. All of the state’s physical evidence, both blood and semen, allegedly tying House to the murder, has been effectively rebutted. The new body of evidence as a whole so completely undermines the case against House and establishes a persuasive case against Muncey that, had it been presented at trial, no rational juror could have found evidence sufficient for conviction.
The new evidence so completely turns the case around that the proof is no longer constitutionally sufficient to warrant a conviction or imposition of the death penalty. Thus House should be immediately released.[/SPOILER]
Liberals sometimes say, sarcastically, that to right-wingers the death penalty is such an important “American value” that the executed person’s innocence is not a drawback. Cases like House v. Bell make one wonder if they’re right!
In some political debates, some argue for an abstract ideal while ignoring the “facts on the ground”; my “real agenda” here is to introduce some facts that may change some preconceptions. But let’s not hijack this thread into reiterating smug abstract preconceptions; let’s just agree on simple facts, starting with the vote in House v. Bell (warden).