A Ghost of Mississippi: The Willie Manning Capital Case

On the eve of his execution, state officials say there should be no DNA or fingerprint testing for a condemned man who maintains his innocence.
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This story is the first in a four-part series on the Willie Manning case.

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Death penalty opponents at a vigil in Mississippi (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

The cornerstone of the edifice of capital punishment in America -- the building block upon which public support for the death penalty rests -- is the accuracy of the result. Ask any pollster and she will tell you that the more convinced Americans are about the accuracy of a capital conviction, they more likely they are to support the execution of the condemned. Conversely, the more concerned Americans are about the reliability of capital cases, the less inclined they are to endorse the death penalty. The relevant question is not: "Did you get the right guy?" Instead it is: "Exactly how sure are you that you got the right guy?"

The answer to that question, in the case of Willie Jerome Manning of Mississippi, surely is: "Not very sure." There is no physical evidence linking Manning to the 1992 murders of two Mississippi State University students. The "jailhouse informant" who once told trial jurors that Manning "confessed" to the crime, has since recanted, telling defense lawyers he thought he would receive "consideration" from prosecutors for incriminating Manning. And Mississippi officials now are refusing to test DNA and fingerprints found at the crime scene -- evidence which did not directly incriminate Manning before, has never been tested using modern procedures, and which might definitely resolve the case one way or the other.

There is more. Although there was incriminating evidence against him at trial, Manning has always maintained his innocence. And jury selection during his 1994 trial -- wherein a black man was accused of murdering two white people in the Deep South -- was marked by the sort of racial attitudes over peremptory challenges that has since caused the United States Supreme Court, in Miller-El v. Dretke and Snyder v. Louisiana, to caution state lawyers about coming into appellate courts with "unreasonable" justifications for excluding black jurors from cases involving black defendants. Over and over again, Manning's prosecutors excluded black jurors from his trial, sometimes for no other reason than that they read "black" magazines.

Racial bias. A faulty confession. Untested scientific evidence. In these circumstances, one could reasonably argue that the "accuracy" of Manning's conviction and death sentence are in doubt. Even more rationally, one could argue that the state has at its disposal the relatively simple means to answer some of the most basic questions raised by the case -- test the evidence! But late last month, in a divided ruling, the Supreme Court of Mississippi declared that the time had come to end the debate over Manning's case and his cause. By a 5-4 vote, the justices rejected the defendant's attempt to test the evidence and for other relief.

So, despite serious questions about the credibility of the prosecution's most powerful witness, and without evaluating the scientific evidence that could supply a definitive answer, state officials plan to put Manning to death by lethal injection at 6 p.m. next Tuesday, May 7, at the state penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi. He will be executed at ol' Parchman unless the Supreme Court in Washington, or the governor in Jackson, stops the execution and orders Mississippi officials, at a minimum, to undertake the testing that would help get to the truth of the matter.

The Scientific Evidence

The most important reason why the Manning case deserves a closer look before it is too late is the failure of state officials to use modern techniques to test DNA and fingerprints from the crime scene. Last month, in rejecting Manning's latest claims, the state supreme court's majority ruled that the defendant was not entitled to DNA testing because the absence of his DNA from the crime scene -- assuming the tests came back negative -- would not exonerate him given the other evidence introduced at trial.

That position, a form of which was argued by state lawyers in their briefs, is unsupported by common sense or Mississippi's history with DNA testing. Lawyers for the Mississippi Innocence Project, which as it often does has filed a brief urging DNA testing in this case, told the state justices late last week:

[O]f the seven people in Mississippi exonerated by DNA testing after being convicted and imprisoned. ... none were exonerated simply because their DNA was absent from the crime scene; they were exonerated because in each case the true perpetrator left their DNA at the crime scene. In six of those cases the true perpetrator was identified by the DNA testing and subsequent comparisons or DNA database searches, and in five cases the real perpetrator was charged with the crime after the wrongly convicted persons were exonerated.

That is what is at stake here; no more, no less. By testing the DNA evidence still available, Mississippi could achieve two goals at the same time -- resolving Manning's claims and, if those claims are valid, finding a person responsible for the crime. The state's justices may be in no mood to listen to the Innocence Project, but if they are they will hear something insightful about the way these cases unfold. "Simply put," the Innocence Project argued this week, "just because it's hard to imagine a scenario where DNA testing could exonerate Willie Manning doesn't mean there isn't one."

The same arguments, not incidentally, can be made about Manning's request, in recent court pleadings, to have "expert analysis and comparison of fingerprints found in the victim's car. Although the Crime Lab ruled out Manning as the source of the prints, it did not compare the prints found in the car to prints in any major database." The state says that this testing should not be done because Manning waited too long to ask for it and because there is no reason to believe that the "person who left those fingerprints is the real killer."

Four Mississippi justices dissented from the decision to proceed with Manning's execution. One of them, Justice James W. Kitchens, a Mississippian through and through, wrote that he would have permitted this testing:

The victims' families and the public at large deserve to know whether another, or an additional perpetrator was involved. If such a person can be identified, he or she should be prosecuted. Further examination of the fingerprints and biological evidence in this case could help achieve that end and/or significantly reinforce the basis for Manning's conviction.

Interests far beyond Manning's are at stake, and whatever the potential harm the denial seeks to assert is surely outweighed by the benefits of ensuring justice by the scientific analysis of all of the trace evidence that the authorities were able to collect from on or about the victims' bodies. Unless and until that is done, the investigation of these horrible crimes will remain incomplete.

The Witnesses Against Manning

There is the saga of Earl Jordan, the quintessential jailhouse informant. At trial, he was quick to tell jurors that Manning had told him that he, Manning, was the one who shot the two white victims. Surely that was enough to convict Manning and sentence him to death. But Jordan now says that Manning "never said he killed them." And on at least two other occasions, Manning's lawyers claim, Jordan lied under oath at trial. "Were you lying then, Mr. Jordan, or are you lying now?" is a question no one will ever ask this informant if the federal courts don't stop this execution.

And then there is the saga of Paula Hathorn. She incriminated Manning at trial but lied to jurors, Manning's lawyer say, when she understated the nature of pending criminal charges against her and denied getting help from prosecutors in exchange for her testimony. What she did do, Manning's lawyers allege, is try to incriminate Manning by asking him a series of leading questions which were secretly recorded by officials. Mississippi officials did not disclose the existence of these tapes to defense attorneys. That's not uncommon. The question you need to ask is whether you are going to countenance this kind of behavior in a capital case.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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