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

PARCHMAN, Miss. - 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...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

PARCHMAN, Miss. – 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 – tonight 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 2nd and 4th, 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.”

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.