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Death Row Prisoner Manning Gets a Stay

The Mississippi State Supreme Court has granted a stay of execution for death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning. Manning was scheduled to be put to death this evening at 6 p.m. at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Manning, accused of killing two people in Oktibbeha County in 1992, has maintained he is innocent and has been fighting to clear his name. Since last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has twice admitted to errors in Manning's original trial, stating that investigators overstated the evidence against Manning.

Prosecutors said Manning had been in possession of items that belonged to the victims and that bullets from Manning's gun matched bullets recovered from the victims' bodies. On May 6, the FBI said in a letter: “The science regarding firearms examinations does not permit examiner testimony that a specific gun fired a specific bullet to the exclusion of all other guns in the world.”

In a letter to Oktibbeha County District Attorney Forrest Allgood, who prosecuted Manning, U.S. Justice Department officials stated last week "that testimony containing erroneous statements regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis was used" in Manning's case.

The letter, which went to Manning's lawyer and the Mississippi Innocence Project, which is monitoring the case, goes on to say that information the FBI presented in its testimony "exceeded the limits of science, and was, therefore, invalid." The FBI offered to perform the mitochondrial DNA testing.

Manning has always said he did not commit the crime; in fact, he says he was at a club on the night of the murders. For years, he's been trying to convince the state to test DNA from the crime scene. As gruesome as the murders were, there should be lots of biological material to test. One of the victims, Tiffany Miller, was shot twice in the face at close range. One leg was out of her pants and underwear, and her shirt was pulled up. Her boyfriend John Steckler's body had abrasions that occurred before he died, and he was shot once in the back of the head. A set of car tracks had gone through the puddles of blood and over Steckler's body.

One of the issues Manning raised in his appeal is that Allgood illegally kept African Americans off Manning's jury by dismissing potential jurors who said they read African American magazines. David Voisin, Manning's attorney, said if approved, the testing could take several weeks, depending on which lab is used.

On May 3, at the Mississippi Capitol, death-penalty opponents and Manning supporters called on Gov. Phil Bryant to stop the execution. The Mississippi Innocence Project filed a brief in support of Manning this week. Kennedy Brewer, who was exonerated in 2008 with DNA tests after being convicted and sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend's young daughter, also wrote Bryant asking to give Manning the same opportunity to clear his name that Kennedy received.

Update: Statment from Attorney General Jim Hood

I am sorry that the victims’ families will have to continue to live this 20 plus year nightmare. Out of an abundance of caution, our Court stayed the sentence until it had time to review this flurry of last minute filings. Yesterday evening our office filed a report with the Court, which I obtained from the district attorney’s office around 6:00 yesterday afternoon. The report states that there was no serological evidence from the victims’ fingernail scrapings or semen on the vaginal swabs from the rape test kit for a DNA test to identify. After having an opportunity to consider this new evidence, the senior attorneys in this office believe our Court will dissolve the stay and the sentence will be carried out. If, however, our Court orders that these items be retested, then we will carry out that order.

I am in conversations with the DOJ and FBI to determine how these last minute letters came about. After conversing with expert witnesses at our Crime Lab, it is clear that FBI experts and experts in all states used more conclusive language in their testimony up until around the time the 2009 National Academy of Science report was issued on forensics. Since then the policy of many experts has been to qualify their testimony by using the magic words “to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty”. The FBI agents in this case were simply following the standards used in their fields at the time. The letters sent from the forensic taskforce chairman at DOJ, merely state that the science was not that exact in 1993, not that these agents were not following the standard followed by all of their colleagues at the time, both state and federal, in testifying to the degree of certainty.

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