On the Eve of Willie Manning’s Execution

Unless Governor Phil Bryant issues a stay of execution, Willie Jerome Manning will be dead in 26 hours, killed by the state of Mississippi. Let’s examine his case, briefly, by the numbers.

14—the number of years Willie has been requesting DNA testing of the evidence collected from the scene of the double-murders he was convicted of in 1994. Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, both students at Mississippi State University, were found dead—multiple gunshot wounds—on the side of a rural Mississippi road in 1992. Amongst other evidence collected from the scene of the crime, Willie has been requesting DNA testing of a rape kit performed on Tiffany Miller, fingernail scrapings, hairs and fingerprint evidence.

21,000—the number of cases occurring before 2000 that the US Department of Justice is going to reevaluate in an effort to correct past errors in forensic hair examinations . After the DOJ announced the review last summer, the Washington Post published a series of articles which revealed that the DOJ had consistently ignored warnings about widespread problems in cases that relied on hair identification. Multiple wrongful convictions have occurred after FBI agents exaggerated the significance of purported hair “matches” in lab reports or in trial testimony.

No physical evidence tied Willie to the scene of the murders. During his trial, however, an F.B.I. agent testified that hairs discovered in Tiffany Miller’s vehicle belonged to an African-American. Willie is black, the two victims white.  On Thursday, the DOJ acknowledged fault in the testimony that helped convict Willie and offered to retest the DNA. Governor Phil Bryant, who has the last word, has yet to make a decision.

306—the number of individuals who have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing in the United States.

2—the number of individuals exonerated off of Mississippi’s death-row. One of those men, Kennedy Brewer, was wrongly convicted by the same DA who led the case against Willie. Kennedy and Willie were on death row together for years, before Kennedy’s exoneration in 2008.

4—the number of Judges on the Mississippi Supreme Court who voted, in the minority, to grant Willie a stay of execution in order to test the DNA evidence. In his dissent, Justice James Kitchens writes: “Whatever potential harm the denial seeks to avert is surely outweighed by the benefits of ensuring justice by the scientific analysis of all the trace evidence.”

The bottom line is that the prosecution’s case against Willie Manning is almost entirely circumstantial. There are no eyewitnesses; there is no evidence tying him to the scene of the crime. There are aspects of the case that do seem to indicate guilt—witnesses claim that Willie later tried to pawn several items that were found missing from the victim’s cars and bodies—but the claims aren’t sufficient to sentence a man to die.

One key witness for the prosecution (a former girlfriend of Willie’s) was given a favorable plea deal on fraud charges that she was fighting independently, as well as nearly $18,000 in reward money, in return for her testimony against Willie. Willie was also tried by an all-white jury.  The prosecution excluded black jurors from the trial, sometimes for no other reason than that they read “black” magazines.

I don’t claim to be convinced of Willie’s innocence. Nor, however, am I convinced of his guilt. There is absolutely nothing to lose by testing the DNA, and everything to gain. Either the results will incriminate him, or they will point to another perpetrator. If Willie Manning is executed tomorrow – before his guilt is proved beyond a doubt— then the desire for revenge will once again best over the pursuit of justice.

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