Willie Manning case highlights why the death penalty must end

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Unless the governor of Mississippi intervenes, the Magnolia State will execute Willie Jerome Manning tonight.  Manning, who is black, was convicted in 1992 of abducting and killing two white college students and sentenced to death.  He wants to prove his innocence through DNA testing, but the courts won’t allow him.

This case tells you much of what you need to know about the death penalty in America, why it does not work, why it never will work, and why we need to put the brakes on it now.

Related: Hair sample holds key to Willie Manning’s fate

Manning, 44, was convicted of fatally shooting Tiffany Miller and Jon Steckler, two Mississippi State University students, in December 1992.  All of the evidence was circumstantial.  There was no physical evidence linking Manning to the murders.  And the prosecution’s witnesses were sketchy, at best.  Earl Jordan, the jailhouse informant from central casting who testified Manning had confessed has since recanted, claiming he thought the D.A. would go easy on him if he pointed the finger at Manning.

Another witness, Paula Hathorn, identified Manning as the killer, but failed to tell the jury about her outstanding criminal case and the deal she received from the prosecution in exchange for her testimony.

In addition, there were other problems with the case, including the exclusion of African-Americans from the jury in violation of the law—a practice which is far too common, especially in Deep Southern states such as Texas, but also has a sordid history in Northern states such as Pennsylvania, where training manuals instructed prosecutors on how to strike black jurors.  Some black jurors in the Manning murder trial were struck for regularly reading Ebony and Jet magazine.

Further, there is DNA evidence, including a rape kit, hair samples and fingernail scrapings recovered from the victims.  All Manning and lawyers want to do is test the DNA samples, which could not only potentially absolve Manning, but also point to the real killer.  The U.S. Justice Department has admitted the FBI made errors in its hair analysis reports and testimony by FBI examiners.  The FBI has offered to conduct DNA testing on the hair samples.

On April 25, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld Manning’s conviction in a close 5-4 decision, and denied his requests for DNA testing.  “Our examination anew of the record reveals that conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt was presented to the jury,” wrote Presiding Justice Michael K. Randolph for the majority.

Justice James W. Kitchens, one of the four dissenting judges, wrote that “The victims’ families and the public at large deserve to know whether another, or an additional perpetrator was involved. If such a person can be identified, he or she should be prosecuted. Further examination of the fingerprints and biological evidence in this case could help achieve that end and/or significantly reinforce the basis for Manning’s conviction.”

Justice Kitchens added, “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.”

Since 1973, 142 death row prisoners have been freed due to innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  And nationwide, 306 people have been exonerated due to DNA testing — 18 of them in Mississippi.

Mississippi’s death machine is a proper mess.  While executions are down nationwide, they are up in Mississippi.  In 2012, Mississippi executed 6 people — tied with Arizona and Oklahoma for second place after Texas — the most since the 1950s.  Death row inmates typically spend 23 hours a day locked in an 80 square foot cell, at a cost of$102.27 a day versus $41.61 for other prisoners.

And race and the death penalty always went hand in hand in Mississippi.  Since the first recorded execution in the state — when a white man was hanged for “stealing a Negro” in 1818 — Mississippi has executed some 794 people.  Of these, 639 were black men, along with 117 white men, 19 black women, 2 Indian men, and 16 others.  Of the 48 death row prisoners in Mississippi, over 56 percent are black, while nearly 70 percent of the victims in these cases were white.  The district attorney has complete discretion to seek death, and there are no standards for appointing defense counsel.  Fourteen cases were thrown out due to incompetent lawyering.  This is how we punish the poor, in the state with the highest poverty, the lowest income, and often the worst education and health standards.

Jeffrey Havard faces execution for the 2002 killing of his girlfriend’s 6-month-old daughter, although the evidence in his case came from a discredited sham pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne.  Hayne, who was never certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology, testified he saw signs of sexual abuse and “shaken baby syndrome” on the victim when he performed her autopsy.  Dr. Michael Baden, a widely-respected pathologist, found no evidence of abuse, shaken baby syndrome, or even a crime after reviewing the autopsy report and photographs.

Hayne was allowed to perform autopsies for Mississippi from the late 1980s until 2008, when the state removed him from their list of approved pathologists.  He performed over 1,700 autopsies in a year, far more than is recommended.  Havard, who has been held in solitary confinement for a decade, is fighting his conviction in federal court, with a petition challenging his conviction and death sentence.

Among those calling for DNA testing for Willie Manning is Kennedy Brewer, who was the first person in Mississippi exonerated through DNA evidence, with the help of the Innocence Project.  In 2008 Brewer was acquitted of the 1992 killing and sexual battery of his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter, for which he spent seven years on death row and eight years in jail awaiting trial.  The medical examiner in Brewer’s case was Steven Hayne.  The real killer confessed to the crime and an identical murder of another three-year old girl.

Another case bungled by Dr. Hayne was that of Sabrina Butler Porter, whose wrongful conviction was recently featured in The New York Times and the British documentary film project  One For Ten.  The only woman exonerated from America’s death row population, Sabrina spent over five years in prison, including three years awaiting her murder by the state.

A teenage mother, Butler was convicted of felony child abuse, the unfathomable crime of murdering her infant son, Walter, in 1989.  Her baby had not been abused as Hayne had reported, and Butler had attempted CPR in an attempt to revive him. The medical examiner changed the cause of death to a kidney malady.  Exonerated in 1995, Butler’s record was expunged last July, 17 years after the fact.  She is now fighting against the death penalty as a member of Witness to Innocence, the national organization of exonerated death row survivors.

Meanwhile, as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley just signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in his state, citing the risk of executing the innocent, Gov. Bryant signed a bill expanding Mississippi’s death penalty law to include acts of terrorism if a victim is killed.  But who is held to account when the government takes the life of an innocent man?  Who pays for that murder?

If DNA proves Willie Manning is innocent, Mississippi can release him from death row.  But no one can release an innocent man from the grave.

David A. Love is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.  Follow him on Twitter at @davidalove