CROSSVILLE, Tenn. -- Paul Gregory House says "Oh, well" a lot.
His mother says it's a quirk of his damaged brain. A sort of sigh, a mental reset, when his thoughts don't crystallize quickly enough.
He says it all the time, though — not least when contemplating a life that took him from death row in 1986, days away from electrocution at one point, to his mother's modest ranch home in Crossville, where she now feeds him and helps him go to the bathroom and get in and out of bed.
The quarter-century in between says a lot about capital punishment in Tennessee. As state officials make an unprecedented push to execute prisoners — at least 10 are scheduled to die in the next two years — the implications of Paul House's life story loom over the state's death penalty system. Dozens of appeals of the murder charge against him, in both state and federal courts, failed to free him, even as he maintained his innocence and new technology ripped apart prosecutors' evidence against him.
Now 52 years old, House sits in a motorized wheelchair, thanks to the ravages of multiple sclerosis. He got sick while on death row. He needs constant care. And though he has moments of lucidity, the lesions on his brain often make him lapse into a more childlike state.
"Some days, he hardly talks at all," says his mother, Joyce House. "But he never complains."
He probably could.
House spent 22 1/2 years on Tennessee's death row, a case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was marred by conflicting testimony and mishandled evidence.
There was a confession two witnesses heard from the victim's husband. New DNA evidence that excluded Paul House as a suspect and tainted blood evidence that was, at best, egregiously mishandled.
He lost years of health in prisons he says didn't treat his illness properly, leaving him wheelchair-bound and a skeletal 130 pounds when he was finally released in 2008.
Still, Paul House doesn't complain.
"It won't get me anywhere," he says, throwing his hands up with a smile. "Oh, well."
But "Oh, well" doesn't begin to address the questions that haven't been answered about his case: Who murdered Carolyn Muncey in 1985? Why did the state fight his release even as DNA evidence showed that hair, blood and semen found on her didn't belong to Paul House? Why does the prosecutor still maintain that House murdered Muncey, in light of significant forensic evidence saying otherwise? What, if anything, does Tennessee owe House, who still hasn't technically been exonerated?
Then there is the deeper question: What does his case say about life, death and justice in Tennessee?
A murder in Union County
Paul House's tangled journey through Tennessee's legal system began the night of July 13, 1985.
Carolyn Muncey, a young mother of two, went missing that night in Luttrell, a Union County town of about 1,000 people northeast of Knoxville. Her body was found the next afternoon, hidden in some brush 100 yards from her home.
She had been beaten and strangled. Possibly raped.
Almost immediately, Union County authorities began questioning the out-of-town sex offender in their midst. Paul House had been in town only a few months. He had moved there at 24, fresh out of prison after serving five years for aggravated sexual assault in Utah.
A witness claimed to have seen House that night walking near where Muncey's body was discovered. Police found soiled jeans in his hamper, caked with dirt and rusty brown stains one investigator thought was blood.
He had been casual friends with both Carolyn Muncey and her husband, William Hubert Muncey Jr., known around town as "Little Hube." They had met at a Saturday night dance.
House didn't help his cause by lying to detectives about being home with his girlfriend that night. She told authorities he went out for a walk and came back with no shirt or shoes on. He claimed he had been mugged.
Detectives arrested him hours after the body was found. He was charged with first-degree murder.
The trial, less than a year later, went quickly. District Attorney General Paul Phillips said House tricked Carolyn Muncey into leaving her home and attacked her.
There was semen in her underwear. There was hair in her hand, and blood and skin under her fingernails. And there was blood on Paul House's jeans.
While technology was less sophisticated, state forensic experts testified that the evidence — blood, hair, semen — probably pointed to House.
On Feb. 8, 1986, jurors took only four hours to convict him and sentence him to die.
While it typically takes many years of appeals for the condemned to be executed, House found himself sitting on death watch two years into his sentence. He was sent there because of a paperwork error, when a court clerk failed to process his appeals papers. It put him five days away from the electric chair.
He was taken off death watch the next day, after his mother realized what had happened and sounded the alarm. But many more mistakes would come to light over the following two decades.
Once, on a visit, Joyce House told her son that she prayed for him.
"Don't talk to me about God," he replied. "If there was a God, I wouldn't be in here."
In 1996, the first answer to her prayers came. It didn't set her son free but it set things in motion.
When the appeals shifted from state to federal court that year, it brought fresh eyes to the case. Eventually it fell to Stephen Kissinger, an assistant federal community defender out of Knoxville.
It didn't take long for him to pick the state's case apart.
First, he uncovered two witnesses who tried to tell Union County authorities that Carolyn Muncey's husband confessed to the murder.
"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,'" one witness told police.
Kissinger uncovered another report from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that was never turned over to Paul House's attorneys. It showed that his tennis shoes had no blood on them.
But the biggest revelation came in 1998, thanks to advances in technology. Kissinger had the semen in Carolyn Muncey's underwear tested for DNA.
The results came back with a hit: William Muncey.
"Your whole story is it's a rape-murder," Kissinger said. "And it's not House."
A year later, Dr. Cleland Blake, the assistant chief medical examiner for Tennessee at the time, took a fresh look at the blood on Paul House's jeans. He found that the blood didn't come from the murder of Carolyn Muncey, but appeared on the jeans after she had died.
One theory was that several vials of her blood spilled when they were transported by authorities in the same container as Paul House's jeans. Some of the vials, it turned out, were empty by the time they reached the FBI, and there was spilled blood all over the evidence container.
Kissinger, to this day, says it's worth considering a second possibility: that evidence was planted.
More statements came to light, revealing that William Muncey had tried to get a friend to lie about his whereabouts the night of the murder. And court records indicate he was known to be a hard drinker who had been seen abusing his wife.
Still, the federal appeals went nowhere — until Kissinger appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In what is still considered a landmark case concerning DNA evidence, the court ruled that no reasonable jury would have found Paul House guilty had they seen all of the evidence in the case. They ordered lower courts to consider a new trial.
By this time, Paul House had been fully diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had been transferred to the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility, a prison for very ill inmates. He could no longer walk.
Two more years
Even as evidence mounted of his innocence, Paul House concluded that he would die behind bars, one way or another.
"I thought that for a long time," Paul House said.
The state tried to keep him on death row. He sat there for two more years until a federal appeals court ordered a new trial.
When that finally happened, he was given a $100,000 bond. On July 2, 2008, thanks to an anonymous donor, he was released from prison and went home for the first time in 22 1/2 years.
The photographs of his release show how far he had wasted away behind bars. His skeletal arms, wild hair and stick-thin legs did not fill the wheelchair in which he rode to the car that would take him home. And yet prosecutors persuaded a judge to keep him on house arrest, saying he could flee and posed a danger to the community.
That didn't dampen his mood.
"I'd been locked up so long, I didn't know what being free was like," he said. "It was a good day — the only one I'd had in 20 years."
About a week later, Joyce House recalled, her son said something about God.
"And I said, 'Oh, you believe in him now?'" she recalled. "He said, 'Yep.'"
Paul Phillips, the prosecutor, announced plans for a new trial. But the evidence that House wasn't guilty kept accumulating.
On Sept. 2, 2008, advanced mitochondrial DNA on hair found in Carolyn Muncey's hand excluded Paul House. Four months later, FBI lab tests revealed that blood found under her fingernails and cigarette butts found near her body didn't match him, either.
On May 12, 2009, Phillips dropped all charges against Paul House. There would be no trial.
Phillips, to this day, thinks Paul House played a part in Muncey's murder.
"We feel that there is strong evidence of his direct involvement in the crime, but on the other hand, we had a reasonable doubt as to whether or not he acted alone," said Phillips, who retired as a prosecutor in 2012. "At times, he has been portrayed as a person that was a victim of the system, which I don't agree with, because, first of all, he had a very serious record involving violent assaults of women in Utah and, secondly, if the question had been proving that he was involved in the crime, we could have proven that in a subsequent trial, in my opinion."
Phillips denied any vendetta against Paul House.
"I'm glad that he's doing relatively well and living with his mother," he said.
Paul House is not impressed. When asked what he would say to Phillips if he got the chance, he responds, "I'd tell him to go to hell."
Since 1989, 316 people convicted of crimes ranging from rape and robberies to multiple murders have been exonerated by new evidence in the United States, according to The Innocence Project. Of those, 18 were sitting on death row. There were three exonerations in Tennessee, but House's case was not one of them.
Though the Innocence Project worked on his case, he has not been exonerated. For that he'd need a pardon from Gov. Bill Haslam, something Joyce House is seeking to end their ordeal.
Kissinger said the state has failed House on an unimaginable scale.
"How's he supposed to live after having every last minute of healthy life being spent on death row for a crime he didn't commit? They robbed him of every healthy day he had. Tell me, what's that worth?" Kissinger said. "What's 22 years of being in a cell by yourself, wondering if you're going to die? What's that worth? What's losing every single healthy day of your life? What's that worth? He spent 22 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Tell me the system works. It doesn't."
When asked about what he has lost — the time, his health, his freedom — Paul House gets serious.
"I don't think about it," he says. "I'm better off not thinking about it."
"You're probably right," his mother says.
He smiles and squints.
"Oh, well," he says.