Meridian Star

State/Region

May 7, 2013

Inmate urges gov, court to block planned execution

JACKSON, Miss. —

A Mississippi inmate sat Monday in a state prison holding cell at Parchman, awaiting word on his plea for the governor or the state Supreme Court to stop his execution scheduled this week.

Willie Jerome Manning's attorneys asked the state Supreme Court on Monday to stop his execution and allow him to seek post-conviction DNA testing of evidence from the investigation into the 1992 slayings of two college students. Manning insists DNA testing will show him innocent.

The execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the state prison.

The Supreme Court, in separate identical 5-4 rulings, has declined to grant Manning time for the tests and to stop his execution.

In a response Monday to Manning's latest filing, the attorney general's office said the inmate's attorneys have not produced any new information that should stop the execution.

Gov. Phil Bryant's spokesman, Mick Bullock, said Monday that the governor had not yet reached a decision.

Manning was handed two death sentences for the slayings of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, whose bodies were discovered in rural Oktibbeha County on Dec. 11, 1992. Each was shot to death and Miller's car was missing. The vehicle was found the next morning.

Prosecutors said Manning was arrested after he tried to sell some items belonging to the victims.

The FBI has offered to conduct the DNA testing after saying its microscopic analysis of evidence in the case, particularly of hair samples found in Miller's car, contained erroneous statements. Manning's attorneys have seized on that statement as key to seeking a stay of execution.

"This motion is compelled by the extraordinary admissions by the FBI," wrote Manning attorney Robert S. Mink in the brief.

At a news conference in his office Monday, Hood said there is "overwhelming evidence of guilt" unrelated to the hair. He also said Manning's attorneys could have had DNA testing done independently years ago, but Hood said it never came up until March.

"I don't want anybody out there to think the state of Mississippi wouldn't pay for DNA testing if it would make a difference. In this case it wouldn't," Hood said.

"It is through no fault of Willie Manning or his counsel that these revelations from the FBI have only just come to light," Mink said in a response filed late Monday. "The false testimony was uncovered as part of a full internal review at the Department of Justice of all cases in which FBI agents have performed forensic hair analysis and subsequently testified in trials."

Hood said the FBI letters were just the agency detailing in writing the changes in the way testing is done now.

In its statement, the FBI says its expert should have testified that he only determined that the hair fragments exhibited traits associated with African-Americans, not that it came from an African-American.

Mink said the statement then given at Manning's trial was false.

"The FBI's misleading exaggeration of the hair's probative value was just what the prosecution needed ... (it) allowed the prosecutor to make the incorrect statistical argument that the hair increased the odds that Manning was the perpetrator of the crime.

"This was an invaluable, though incorrect, argument in a case built primarily on circumstantial evidence," Mink said.

In the court filing Monday, Hood said "the supposed 'new' evidence does not represent new evidence nor do these letters from DOJ represent, when read in context, a repudiation of the testimony" offered by an FBI agent during the trial.

"The State now tries to downplay the importance of both the hair evidence at trial and the subsequent letters from the FBI admitting its falsity. It is not a 'matter of semantics.' ... Having offered these proofs and argued their significance, the State should not be permitted to now 'walk away' from its evidence and demean its importance," Mink wrote, citing an earlier case.

Mink also notes that DNA testing has ever been performed on the rape kit, hair fibers or on the fingernail scrapings.

"To pass on this issue and sanction the execution of Willie Manning, even in light of these revelations, would be counter to fundamental due process, the eight and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution and the Mississippi Constitution. The State clearly relied on the forensic hair analyst's testimony to link Willie Manning to the crime scene and forensic testimony is known to have an impact on juries. Even in a non-capital case, this would be enough to remand the case for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of the hair analysis.," Mink wrote.

"This Court should vacate Mr. Manning's convictions and order a new trial. At the very least, the Court should stay the execution, order DNA testing on the hair or remand the case for further factual development."

In its 5-4 ruling on April 25, the Supreme Court said there was "conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt" presented an Oktibbeha County jury.

The Supreme Court said the jury heard from Manning's cousin and a prison cellmate that Manning has confessed to the slayings. The court said other witnesses testified that Manning tried to sell them items that were later shown to have belonged to Steckler and Miller.

Manning's girlfriend testified that days before the slayings, Manning had been firing a handgun at a tree behind their house, according to court records. FBI experts testified they matched bullets from the tree to those recovered from the scene of the slayings.

On Friday, the Innocence Project of Mississippi and Manning's brother filed in Oktibbeha County a lawsuit that seeks a temporary restraining order that would prevent the destruction of evidence in the case.

Robert McDuff, a Jackson attorney who represents the Mississippi Innocence Project in the lawsuit, said the group wants to preserve the evidence for DNA and other testing.

"We're hoping to get this evidence tested and let the truth come out," McDuff said Sunday. "Hopefully, the governor or the courts will stay the execution so we can determine prior to the execution what the DNA shows. But even if they don't, there are a lot of people who still want to see the evidence tested to determine once and for all who is responsible for this crime."

 

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