Mississippi Supreme Court Reverses Itself, Grants Stay Of Execution After DOJ Intervention

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On Tuesday, Mississippi came within a whisper of executing a man who has been pleading for DNA testing of previously untested physical evidence. Over the past week, the U.S. Department of Justice put their weight behind the plea with three ‘unprecedented’ letters, refuting FBI evidence given in the case almost 20 years ago. Mississippi’s supreme court reversed itself at the last-minute and stayed the man’s execution with only four hours to spare.

African-American Willie Manning was convicted in 1994 of killing two white university students two tears before. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence–an unremarkable stance for a death-row inmate–but has also asked repeatedly that untested evidence undergo DNA testing to prove it. The state has just as repeatedly denied the request.

Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic has written extensively about the case. Last week, he listed the errors in prosecution that should have allowed a reconsideration of evidence. First, the jury was selected with a distinct racial bias, potential black jurors being systematically excluded by the prosecution. Second, the prosecution’s star witness was a jailhouse informant who testified that the defendant confessed to the crime, but who has since recanted his testimony. The informant said Manning never told him he killed the couple, but he thought incriminating Manning would gain “consideration” for himself with prosecutors. Third is the untested scientific evidence–hair particles, a rape kit, and fingerprints–that could provide a clear answer to guilt or innocence because of current sensitive DNA testing and a fingerprint data base that didn’t exist in 1994.

For years, state officials have turned away Manning’s pleas for justice. In a truly baffling move in late April, Mississippi’s Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision that Manning wasn’t entitled to DNA testing because other evidence would surely uphold his conviction. What is most confusing about this assertion is the fact that, after the exoneration of two other death-row inmates based on DNA testing, Mississippi passed a series of laws in 2009 upholding a prisoner’s right to request the testing. In addition, there is a suspicion that there were two perpetrators involved in the crime. In a dissenting opinion, Justice James W. Kitchens wrote:

“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.”

And yet Mississippi was willing to put a man to death without this final substantiation of the evidence, or proof of whether a second person was involved. That’s when the U.S. Department of Justice got involved. On May 2nd, the DOJ began sending a series of three letters refuting the FBI evidence given in 1994. The first two letters said that the “expert” testimony in 1994 of the FBI hair analyst:

“…exceeded the limits of science and was, therefore, invalid.”

Finally, on the morning of May 7th, a third letter was sent to the court which stated that the FBI ballistics evidence given at the time could not link spent bullets fired to a specific gun with “absolute certainty”. In each of the three letters, the DOJ has offered new DNA testing of the trace evidence by the FBI.

The three letters outlining the DOJ’s review of evidence seem to have finally caught the state supreme court’s attention. Though prosecutors were still arguing that there were no new circumstances justifying a stay of execution, the court ordered a stay of execution, 8 to 1. They did not publish their reasoning, saying only that the stay is granted “pending further order by this court”. This leaves all parties awaiting further instruction.

While credit should be given to the court for being willing to reverse itself, that one dissenting voice is particularly disturbing. Justice Michael K. Randolph seems to take umbrage at the involvement of the Department of Justice in the case, and especially at the fact that the DOJ has cooperated with the Innocence Project, which helps death row inmates prove their innocence and which provided Manning with legal assistance. Further, in a section of his dissent that Atlantic writer Andrew Cohen describes as “unhinged”, the justice conducts a nearly incoherent rant about the ‘Fast and Furious’ gun running operation, Miranda warnings, and foreign enemy combatants.

Manning and his legal team have their work cut out for them. While they must spend the next several months getting the evidence that may or may not exonerate Willie Manning, Mississippi has some work to do, also. Namely, they should be asking questions about why they are so willing to put inmates to death without adequately substantiating the evidence, why they are choosing finality over truth and justice, why they are willing to possibly let one perpetrator run free because they have the ability to put another man to death, about how much racism plays a role in who they put to death, and, finally, whether they just might have a mentally unbalanced justice sitting on the bench of their highest court.

That’s a lot of soul-searching. I hope this case kickstarts the process, as well as providing a clear answer about guilt or innocence.

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