THE BLOG

Murder in Mississippi

05/06/2013 11:11 am ET | Updated Jul 06, 2013
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And, here's to the judges of Mississippi

Who wear the robe of honor as they crawl into the court

They're guarding all the bastions with their phony legal fort

Oh, justice is a stranger when the prisoners report

When the black man stands accused the trial is always short

Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of

Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of!

If the authorities in Mississippi have their way tomorrow, Willie Manning will be strapped to a gurney and injected with chemicals that will paralyze his lungs and stop his heart. It would be nice to know if he were guilty.

Manning, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1992 murders of two white college students. Manning has steadfastly professed his innocence, but prosecutors claimed that "Negroid" hairs found in a car used in the crime were likely his.

Now federal law enforcement officials are doubting the accuracy of tests conducted on those hairs. In a recent letter sent to the county district attorney and Manning's lawyers, a Justice Department attorney wrote that "testimony containing erroneous statements regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis was used in this case." In addition, the FBI has offered to run more sophisticated tests.

But Forest Allgood, the DA who prosecuted Manning, has opposed any DNA testing. And, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with him. In a 5-4 decision last month, the high court ruled that "conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt" was presented at Manning's trial, so the tests were unnecessary.

What, exactly, was the powerful evidence that incriminated Manning? The State's star witnesses were a jailhouse snitch who said Manning confessed to him, and a former girlfriend who linked Manning to the murder weapon. But the snitch has recanted his testimony, while the girlfriend failed to tell the jury that prosecutors cut a sweet deal with her on unrelated criminal charges -- and received nearly $18,000 in reward money after testifying against Manning.

Manning was further implicated by witnesses who said he tried to sell items from the female victim's car. That would be troubling if they'd actually seen him remove the items at the crime scene rather than sell them later, as fences commonly do. More important, Manning's fingerprints were not found in the car, and several lifts also excluded the victims.

But Mississippi lawmen have refused to run the unmatched prints through fingerprint databases that effectively identify criminals. Equally troubling, the authorities have opposed DNA testing of the rape kit, even though the female victim's body was discovered with her underwear partially removed. While the original tests of the swabs did not find semen, modern methods have found genetic profiles where none was detected at the dawn of the DNA era.

So why does DA Allgood want Manning put to death without the testing? It's simply a stalling tactic, Allgood told the New York Times, a guilty man's desperate maneuver to delay his execution. "There will be something else after that," he said. "I think there has to be an end."

Perhaps Allgood should rethink his position, having been in this situation before. In 1992, the same year of the crime that led to Manning's death sentence, a Mississippi man named Kennedy Brewer was charged with raping and murdering his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter. Brewer spent seven years on death row in Mississippi, only to be later freed by DNA testing. The lead prosecutor in the case? Forest Allgood.

Allgood also wrongfully prosecuted Lavon Brooks, who was locked up for 16 years of a life sentence for murder before being cleared by DNA. That made Allgood responsible for one-third of Mississippi's DNA exonerations, which total six of the 306 prisoners freed nationally by the tests.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R.) is reportedly reviewing Manning's plea to test the hairs, rape kit and fingerprints -- evidence he has fought to have analyzed for more than a decade. The governor is probably Manning's best chance to see Wednesday. Maybe Bryant will keep Allgood's track record in mind when making this life-or-death decision.

More broadly, one wonders about a prosecutor's accountability in death penalty cases like Manning's and Brewer's. If a resident of DA Allgood's county had unjustifiably tried to kill someone, the prosecutor would rightly charge the perpetrator with attempted murder. Should the same standard apply to the prosecutor himself?

Similarly, if Willie Manning is killed without testing evidence that could prove his innocence, what should happen to Forest Allgood?

UPDATE: Just hours before Willie Manning was scheduled to die this evening, the Mississippi Supreme Court issued a stay of execution. With one dissent, the justices blocked Manning's execution "pending further order of this court." The court had previously rejected Manning's request for DNA testing, an issue it will now reconsider. Here is the Supreme Court's order.