Willie Manning deserves DNA testing before May 7 execution

by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld

Last week the Mississippi Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision denied Willie Manning the opportunity to do DNA testing that could prove he is innocent of the crime that landed him on death row. Tragically, Manning is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday and may never get the opportunity to do the testing that could prove whether he is innocent as he has always maintained.

We urge Gov. Phil Bryant to issue a stay so the testing can be done. While people can differ on whether the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment, nearly everyone would agree that it should be used only in those cases where we are certain of guilt. DNA testing could provide that certainty or prove, as Manning insists, that he is innocent. It could also, as the Mississippi Supreme Court judges noted in their dissent, provide the identity of alleged second perpetrator who has never been caught.

Eighteen people who served time on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence since it became available two decades ago. One of those men, Kennedy Brewer, was convicted in Mississippi. Like Manning, Brewer was convicted based on circumstantial evidence and unvalidated forensic science. In Brewer’s case, the prosecution relied on widely discredited bite mark testimony, and in Manning’s case the prosecution presented hair microscopy, which because of its unreliability will be subject to a recently announced FBI nationwide review. The DNA evidence in Brewer’s case proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator who confessed to the crime and another murder for which someone had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to life. Fortunately, that man, Levon Brooks, was also exonerated.

We don’t know what the DNA evidence will ultimately prove in Manning’s case, but there is a good chance that it will be highly probative — and much more reliable than the kind of evidence that was used to convict him of the 1992 murders of Pamela Tiffany Miller and Jon Stephan Steckler. The two students were kidnapped after leaving a party at Mississippi State University and were driven to a remote location and both were shot to death. At trial, there was no physical evidence linking Manning to the crime. The prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence. At one point the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned his conviction because Manning’s lawyers weren’t allowed to fully cross-examine the informant, but the court later reconsidered its decision and let the conviction stand.

Since 1994, Manning has been seeking DNA testing of the rape kit, fingernail scrapings that were recovered from both victims and hairs recovered from the scene. Rape kits and fingernail scrapings are routinely tested today because the testing can prove with near certainty who committed the crime. Before DNA evidence, prosecutors would often rely on hair microscopy to place a defendant at the scene even though the practice was never scientifically validated. After DNA evidence exonerated three people who had been wrongly convicted in part based on this type of evidence, the FBI announced this year that it would undertake a massive review of all cases in which one of its analysts testified about this type of evidence. Given that the FBI performed the hair microscopy in this case, it would seem that Manning’s case should be subject to this review — if he isn’t put to death first.

As the dissenters noted, given that it is alleged that two perpetrators committed the crime, it’s puzzling that the district attorney is so resistant to testing.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has said that the DNA testing is unnecessary because there is other overwhelming evidence of guilt. But appeals courts were also wrong in the cases of all 306 DNA exonerations, including the 18 who served time on death row. DNA testing has the potential to tell us once and for all who committed these two tragic murders, and that’s something we all should want.

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Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld are co-founders and co-directors of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent injustice.

5 thoughts on “Willie Manning deserves DNA testing before May 7 execution

  1. The lone dissenting judge, Justice Michael K. Randolph is an embarassment to the judicial system.


    Hours Before Execution, a State Court Grants Willie Manning a Stay
    A capital case about race and scientific evidence, about jailhouse snitches and faulty federal testimony, comes to a screeching halt.

    Andrew Cohen May 7 2013, 5:31 PM ET

    By a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court of Mississippi this afternoon halted the scheduled execution of Willie Manning just hours before the convicted murderer was to be put to death by lethal injection at the Parchman prison in Sunflower. In their brief order, which you can read for yourself here, the justices did not give any reason for blocking the execution, and it is unclear at this time exactly how the case will proceed from here. (For The Atlantic’s coverage of the case, please see the “More On” box below)
    Manning, who is black, was convicted in 1994 for the murder of two white university students in 1992. He has maintained his innocence ever since, amid troublesome (and growing) questions about the accuracy and reliability of the evidence on which his conviction and death sentence are based. Manning’s long-ago trial was marked by racial bias in jury selection, for example, and a jailhouse informant, who incriminated Manning in 1994, has since sought to recant his trial testimony.

    But the Mississippi court’s order Tuesday is likely based upon the scientific evidence that was and was not introduced at trial. Manning’s attorneys have long argued that state officials should test DNA and fingerprint evidence from the crime scene — evidence that has never been tested and that would either incriminate Manning definitively or perhaps identify someone else who may have committed the crimes. The state has consistently refused to undertake this testing even though the FBI has offered to do it, and Mississippi has a remarkable recent record of exonerating criminal defendants in such a fashion.
    A Ghost of Mississippi: The Willie Manning Capital Case
    Feds Acknowledge Scientific Errors in Testimony in Willie Manning Case
    As a matter of law, the absence of this testing from a shaky case like this was likely enough to warrant a stay of Manning’s execution. But the state’s refusal to test its DNA evidence was made even more pronounced over the past few days by the intervention of federal officials. Since May 2, the Justice Department has sent three letters to the attorneys in the case announcing that the feds now are backing away from the “ballistics” and “hair fiber” testimony their so-called “expert” testified about at Manning’s trial. State prosecutors heavily relied on that now-discredited evidence at trial — as have state court judges ever since — as proof that Manning’s conviction was secure enough to warrant his execution.
    The state came within four hours of executing Manning despite the conceded inaccuracy and unreliability of the scientific evidence against him, despite the willingness of a jailhouse informant to recant, despite racial bias in jury selection. It came within hours of executing the man, even though the scientific evidence that could exonerate him was never tested. No matter what happens now — and don’t forget Manning is still a long way from being out of trouble — it is a credit to the eight Mississippi justices who voted for the stay that they were willing to change their minds about this case. Last month, by a vote of 5-4, this same court refused to require the DNA testing.
    Today’s order, by contrast, is a mark of great dishonor to the lone dissenting justice, Michael K. Randolph, who in just a few paragraphs helped illustrate the dubious rationale behind so many of these flawed capital cases. To Justice Randolph, the grave error in this case was not the false testimony against Manning or the lack of DNA testing, it was the fact that his lawyers this week failed to submit affidavits with the letters from federal officials. Then, in a passage as unhinged as any I have ever read in a judicial opinion, Justice Randolph gave full voice to his real frustrations about the result here. Of the Justice Department’s timely intervention in this story, Justice Randolph wrote:

    The letter also states that the Department of Justice is “assist[ing] [the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers] in their evaluations.” “The Innocence Project supports a moratorium on capital punishment.” The “NACDL has been an outspoken critic of the death penalty system. Of critical concern is the language contained in the first FBI report stating that, “[g]iven the abbreviated time frame for review, the FBI requests the Innocence Project (IP) to advise as to whether or not they agree with the FBI’s conclusions as soon as possible.”
    Although the connectivity and expediency by which this review was accomplished is mind boggling, I should not be surprised, given that the families of the victims of the clandestine “Fast and Furious” gun running operation can’t get the Department of Justice to identify the decision makers (whose actions resulted in the death of a border agent and many others) after years of inquiry, and that this is the same Department of Justice that grants and enforces Miranda warnings to foreign enemy combatants.” [emphasis in original]

    While Willie Manning will live for at least a few more months, nothing about today’s order guarantees him a reversal of his conviction, or a new trial, or a new hearing about jury selection or that jailhouse snitch or those discredited federal experts, or any DNA and fingerprint testing. Those questions are left for another day, and both Manning’s lawyers and state attorneys now are waiting for further guidance from the court on what happens next. We haven’t heard the last of Willie Manning, in order words — or Justice Randolph, either, for that matter.


  2. SHAME on the Mississippi Supreme Court. DOUBLE shame. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I feel that Willie Manning may get a stay of execution and an opportunity to test his DNA evidence. Just look at what Governor Bryant wrote: “I call on every Mississippian, no matter what our race, religion or party, to rise above petty differences and build TOGETHER the Mississippi that citizens deserve.” And consider this! “The FBI and Justice Department cite errors in Manning murder trial.” The article says, “In a rare move, the Department of Justice and the FBI are saying laboratory reports on hair analysis and testimony by FBI examiners were erroneous in the 1994 capital murder case that sent Willie Jerome Manning to death row.” I congratulate officials at the Department of Justice for releasing this information in time to help Mississippi do the right thing by one of its citizens, maybe an INNOCENT citizen, who faces execution on May 7. The opportunity to prove innocence is one of the rights that “citizens deserve.” http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20130504/NEWS01/305040022/FBI-Justice-Department-cite-errors-Manning-murder-trial


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