Just hours before he was scheduled to die Tuesday, Willie Manning—who had been convicted of two murders and was recently denied a DNA test that could exonerate him—had his execution stayed by the Mississippi Supreme Court. That’s the very same court that, by a 5-4 decision last month, refused to require the testing.
The justices’ order did not cite their reasons for postponing the execution. However, the development comes after the FBI recently admitted that its original analysis of evidence used to convict Manning contained errors.
Manning, who is black, was convicted in 1994 for the murder of two white university students in 1992. He has maintained his innocence ever since, amid troublesome (and growing) questions about the accuracy and reliability of the evidence on which his conviction and death sentence are based. Manning’s long-ago trial was marked by racial bias in jury selection, for example, and a jailhouse informant, who incriminated Manning in 1994, has since sought to recant his trial testimony.
... As a matter of law, the absence of this testing from a shaky case like this was likely enough to warrant a stay of Manning’s execution. But the state’s refusal to test its DNA evidence was made even more pronounced over the past few days by the intervention of federal officials. Since May 2, the Justice Department has sent three letters to the attorneys in the case announcing that the feds now are backing away from the “ballistics” and “hair fiber” testimony their so-called “expert” testified about at Manning’s trial. State prosecutors heavily relied on that now-discredited evidence at trial—as have state court judges ever since—as proof that Manning’s conviction was secure enough to warrant his execution.
The state came within four hours of executing Manning despite the conceded inaccuracy and unreliability of the scientific evidence against him, despite the willingness of a jailhouse informant to recant, despite racial bias in jury selection. It came within hours of executing the man, even though the scientific evidence that could exonerate him was never tested. No matter what happens now—and don’t forget Manning is still a long way from being out of trouble—it is a credit to the eight Mississippi justices who voted for the stay that they were willing to change their minds about this case.