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Defense: Hair sample in question in death row inmate's pending execution

(This article was first published on TheGrio.)
This is a Sept. 16, 2010 Mississippi Department of Corrections provided photograph of death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning, taken at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Miss., who is scheduled to die by lethal injection, Tuesday, May 7. ...
This is a Sept. 16, 2010 Mississippi Department of Corrections provided photograph of death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning, taken at the Mississippi State...

(This article was first published on TheGrio.)

Attorneys for a death row inmate convicted of killing two college students in 1992 are hoping that a hair sample holds the key to exonerating their client.

Willie Jerome Manning was convicted of killing four people in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi – two elderly women and two college students.

Unless the state or the governor decides to intervene, Manning will die – for the latter crimes – Tuesday night when he is executed by lethal injection at Mississippi‘s state penitentiary.

The two earlier murder convictions are still on appeal.

Strange turn of events

In letters dated May 2 and 4, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) advised Forrest Allgood, the district attorney who prosecuted the case, that previous testimony as to the “microscopic hair comparison analysis” used in the case against Manning was wrong.

In the May 4 letter, the DOJ said testimony regarding forensic evidence in the case “exceeded the limits of science … and was therefore, invalid.”

That hair analysis was one of the factors that linked Manning to the shooting deaths of Mississippi State University students Jon Steckler and his girlfriend, Tiffany Miller in December 1992. The hair in question was found in Miller’s car, and an FBI examiner concluded it came from a “member of the black race,“ the letter said.

Miller and Steckler were white. Manning is black.

The FBI said they would even conduct specific DNA testing on the hair if Allgood so desired.

He doesn’t.

“If the issue of DNA was so important a defense, then why did they wait until the 11th hour to bring it up?” Allgood told Mississippi’s WLOV-TV. “Obviously, if this was the key to the jailhouse door, they would have done something about this sooner. And if they didn’t, they’re being completely negligent and incompetent and I cannot believe that’s what they’re doing.”

Related: The Willie Manning case highlights why the death penalty must end

But using the DOJ’s letter as a springboard, Manning’s attorneys have filed motion after motion to stay Manning’s execution. Mississippi’s current attorney general, Jim Hood, said that in the same letters from the DOJ – which he received from the governor – the examiner explained that “erroneous statements” made at trial referred to hair analysis “in general” and not to the “evidentiary hair” found in Miller’s vehicle after the crime.

“When we look at the document attached to the DOJ counsel, we find something that was not included in the report by counsel … that was furnished by the Microscopic Hair Comparison Analysis Review Team…“ Hood said in his response. “This caveat from the review team was curiously omitted from the report written by DOJ counsel.”

This “last minute evidence in the form of DOJ letters … does nothing to change the analysis of this claim,” Hood said.

“Let’s say they found some DNA from a hair found in [Miller’s] car and that hair doesn‘t match anyone known,” Allgood told WCBI TV. “What does that mean? Could it be that some other person was involved in the crime” Yes. Could be. Could it also be from the guy who detailed the car a week before the killing took place and was cleaning it up himself? Could be that too. It depends on where it comes from and even then, unless you have a time frame as to when that sample was deposited there, there’s always going to be questions.”

“Even if technologies were available to determine the source of the hair, to indicate someone other than Manning, it would not negate other evidence that shows his guilt,” Hood said.

Manning’s family believes otherwise.

Working with the Mississippi Innocence Project, Manning’s brother, Marshon Manning, filed a lawsuit to preserve the hair and other DNA evidence for testing even if his brother is executed Tuesday night at 6 p.m.

Speaking on behalf of Manning’s family, Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project said: “Regardless of the State of Mississippi’s refusal to ensure it is executing the right person for this terrible crime, we intend to provide the public generally, the local communities where this crime occurred and the victims’ families with the answer they deserve in this case: either assurance that justice was served, or to alert the people of Mississippi that the true perpetrator has gone undetected, as has happened in so many cases in Mississippi and nationally where DNA has exonerated people in prison.”

A ‘dark period’ reawakened

County officials said Manning’s scheduled execution has reawakened a dark period in the lives of residents in Oktibbeha County.

During the early morning hours of Dec. 11, 1992, the bodies of Miller and Steckler were found in a rural part of the county. Miller had been shot twice in the face at close range, in the left mid-forehead and around the mouth going through the lips. She had also been raped.

Steckler had been beaten, shot once in the back of the head and run over with the car.

Prosecutors said Manning murdered both students in the course of a robbery and he was arrested after he tried to sell items, including jewelry, belonging to the victims.

Related: Maryland repeals death penalty

But people who know Manning, whom they call “Fly” said he is innocent and doesn’t deserve to die.

“I’ve never known Willie ‘Fly’ Manning to hurt nobody,” long time activist and Starkville resident Dorothy Bishop, told WCBI.

Bishop and a handful of supporters protested outside the Oktibbeha County Courthouse Monday holding signs that said: “Thou Should Not Kill Willie ‘Fly’ Manning.”

But county officials who worked the case said evidence links Manning to Steckler and Manning, as well as to 60-year-old Emmoline Jimmerson and her mother, 90-year-old Alberta Jordan who were found dead a month later in their Brooksville Gardens apartment on Jan. 18, 1993.

“A girlfriend that Manning dated said she saw him shoot a gun into a tree at his momma’s house,” Oktibbeha County Sheriff Dolph Bryan told WCBI TV. “We got a search warrant, went and took the bullets out of that tree and they were a 100 percent match. I don’t like to think about killing somebody because it’s a horrible thing. But Willie Jerome Manning worked hard for his death sentence. He’s killed at least four people and I’m not sure that’s all he’s killed.”

‘Conclusive, overwhelming evidence’

In its 5-4 ruling on April 25, the Supreme Court said there was “conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt” against Manning presented to an Oktibbeha County jury in the case of Steckler and Miller.

Witnesses at the apartment complex of Jimmerson and Jordan testified they saw Manning enter the women’s apartment and he was later seen running up a hill.

Both women had been robbed, beaten about the head with an iron, and their throats were slashed from the front to the backbone.

“There is no doubt in my mind that he was guilty of all four murders,” Chief Deputy George Carritthers told WCBI. “This case should have come to an end years ago.”

“I don’t understand why it takes so long to get to this point,” Allgood said. “The DNA was on the radar then because the FBI lab did some DNA testing on some of the articles. If that is in the crime lab report the Defense has got everything we’ve got. They have to know that. They have to know what articles were out there. They have to know what could have been tested and not tested. And you just wonder how it gets to the point where you’re literally hours away from a huge act and no one brought this up before.”

According to prison officials, Manning was moved to a holding cell next to the execution room on Sunday, and the prison was placed on lockdown on Monday. A spokesman with the Mississippi Department of Corrections said the mood of the inmates prior to an execution is usually “somber” and agitated.

Tuesday morning, the day of the execution, Manning will meet with his attorneys to see if the governor or the Supreme Court will rule in his favor. State officials said it could happen, but that outcome seems unlikely.

“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.

Neither the Manning or Steckler families are commenting on Tuesday’s scheduled execution, but a spokesman said all they want is closure