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Supreme Court to Decide on Need for New Trials Based on New Evidence Techniques


The Supreme Court says it will decide if and when people convicted of crimes should get a new chance to prove their innocence, based on DNA evidence. The highest court in the United States is hearing the case of a man who was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing a young mother. Genetic evidence wasn't available during his trial 20 years ago.

Paul House sits on death row in the southern U.S. state of Tennessee for the rape and murder of Carolyn Muncey. A jury convicted him after hearing testimony that evidence found on the victim was likely from Mr. House, a previously convicted sex offender.

Years later, that evidence was analyzed using DNA testing and it turned out the DNA was not his, but the woman's husband. DNA is a molecule that contains genetic information and each person's is unique.

Peter Neufeld is with the Innocence Project, a legal clinic that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing. He says, "House may very well be innocent, we don't know. But we sure as heck know that the first jury didn't hear true facts. They heard false facts, and the DNA proves to a certainty that they heard false facts, and he deserves a new trial."

Kevin McElfresh is head of Bode Technology, near Washington, DC, which does DNA testing for criminal cases. He says DNA testing can make or break a criminal case.

"The real beauty of DNA testing is that you have a solid, real piece of information that says that this person is tied to this crime with certainty,” says Mr. McElfresh. “All DNA does is say we know who this person is. It's up to a jury to decide that person is a criminal."

DNA technology has been used to free 172 convicted felons, including 14 on death row. But there is no requirement for the law to revisit a case based on previously unavailable DNA evidence. And in this case William Phillips, the prosecutor, argues there is significant other evidence against Mr. House.

"We are in favor of DNA evidence to exonerate people in appropriate cases, but this is not the case," he said.

Mr. House, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, continues to maintain his innocence. "I can't do anything other than say I did not do it."

Now the Supreme Court will decide if new DNA evidence should be considered so compelling that Mr. House at least deserves a new trial and others in similar circumstances.