A Mississippi man came only four hours from being executed before the State Supreme Court issued a stay Tuesday afternoon. The reprieve arrived a week after the Justice Department sent multiple letters that called expert FBI testimony into question.
Willie Manning, 44, was convicted in 1994 of murdering two white college students, although he has always maintained his innocence. In the days leading to the scheduled execution, the Department of Justice sent three letters to the Oktibbeha County District Attorney's office outlining what it viewed as serious problems with some of the case's evidence.
The letters described testimony about hair found at the crime scene as "erroneous," questioned the testimony of the FBI's ballistics expert, and offered to use FBI resources to conduct DNA testing on evidence. Mississippi officials have refused to conduct DNA testing and called the DOJ's assertions a "red herring."
The eight Mississippi justices that issued the majority opinion gave no explanation for their decision and did not order any DNA tests, nor did they set any timeline for future action. Manning’s reprieve is a temporary one; even if the court orders DNA tests, he could still be executed.
Justice Mike Randolph, the lone dissenter, suggested that the DOJ's handling of the Boston bombing investigation, in which investigators read suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's his Miranda rights after more than 60 hours in custody, as a reason to distrust its concerns about this case.
Prior to Tuesday's late-night stay, the Mississippi Innocence Project had filed a motion for a temporary restraining order in Oktibbeha County to ensure that any evidence related to the case could be tested.
"Why wouldn't you test when you have biological evidence in a case," Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, told msnbc.com. "If this case happened today, the first thing they'd do is test the evidence. It can provide context that we wouldn't otherwise have."
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement that his office had filed a report stating that there was no evidence for a DNA test to identify; he also said that his office would conduct tests if the Supreme Court ordered it to do so.
It is exceedingly rare for the Justice Department to get involved in cases in this way.
"I don’t know of any other case where they have sent a letter to the state saying they made a mistake two days prior to the execution," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
David Voisin, Manning's lawyer, called the situation "unprecedented" in a statement he issued last week.
Manning’s reprieve is a temporary one. He could still be executed depending on the next steps taken by the courts and any possible continued investigation.