KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- When the US Supreme Court hears arguments tomorrow in the case of convicted killer Paul House, it will be the first time a death row inmate has brought DNA evidence before the high court to prove his innocence.
The outcome could determine whether prisoners have a constitutional right to use DNA technology to seek new trials.
Since 1989, DNA technology has been used in lower courts to exonerate 172 convicted felons in 31 states, including 14 people who had initially been sentenced to death.
''This is the first time the US Supreme Court has ever considered a case in which DNA evidence is a component of an actual innocence claim," said Nina Morrison, staff attorney for the Washington-based advocacy group the Innocence Project. ''It is also the first death penalty case they have ever heard in which DNA evidence is at issue."
House, 44, has been on Tennessee's death row for 20 years, convicted of murdering Carolyn Muncey, a young mother who lived near him in rural Luttrell, about 25 miles north of Knoxville, in 1985.
There were no witnesses to the crime and House maintains he did not do it.
The high court will hear arguments on whether DNA evidence and other new claims in House's case are so compelling that he deserves a chance at a new trial.
The prosecution found semen on the victim, and experts suggested at the time that it came from House, but new DNA evidence showed it was from Muncey's husband.
The prosecution also found the victim's blood on House's pants, but DNA analysis suggested that a forensic sample of the blood may have been spilled on the pants after the slaying.
Jennifer Smith, an associate deputy attorney general in Tennessee, said the new evidence in House's case ''fails to establish his innocence."
But an appellate court was not so sure. A sharply divided US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled 8-to-7 in 2004 that House did not deserve a retrial, but two judges wrote strongly worded dissenting opinions.
''I am convinced we are faced with a real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed," Judge Ronald Lee Gilman wrote.
House's defense team has produced several witnesses who say that the victim's husband, Hubert Muncey, was known to have hit his wife and confessed to killing her.
Muncey, who still lives in Union County, has maintained his innocence.
The court does not have to find that House ''is absolutely innocent for them to vote in his favor," Morrison said. ''All they need to do is find that he raised enough doubt about his guilt to get a hearing."
House has said he has no confidence in the judicial system.
''I didn't kill her," he told The Associated Press last year in a prison interview. ''I haven't studied law books and all that crap. I'm not interested in the law, not after I've been burned by it. I couldn't care less."
Tennessee has 108 inmates on death row. The state has not executed anyone since 2000, when child rapist and murderer Robert Glen Coe was put to death. That was the state's first execution in 40 years.