05/07/2013 09:09 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Last Minute Justice


Forty-four year-old Willie Jerome Manning is alive this evening. As recent as this afternoon, we thought we'd be bringing you the the news of his execution. You see, Manning was scheduled to be put to death at 6:00 tonight for the 1992 murders of two Mississippi State University students. But about three hours before he was to die by lethal injection, the Mississippi Supreme Court decided, 8 to 1 that, "It is therefore ordered that the motion to stay execution filed by Willie Jerome Manning is hereby granted pending further order of this court."

This is a sharp, surprising reversal from their 5-4 decision last month that "...the existing evidence tying Willie Jerome Manning to the murder of two college students in 1992 was so strong that the findings of DNA tests would not make a difference."

You heard that correctly. Mississippi state officials had refused to test DNA and fingerprint evidence in the case, ruling that it would not exonerate him, based on all the other evidence introduced at the trial. Writing in dissent of the Mississippi Supreme Court's first ruling, Justice James Kitchens stated that without further testing the "the investigation of these horrible crimes will remain incomplete."

Justice James Kitchens stated that without further testing "the investigation of these horrible crimes will remain incomplete." And just last week, the U.S. Justice Department doubled-down on that opinion by acknowledging that they weren't so sure about the state's evidence against Manning. The Justice Department wrote a pair of letters to prosecutors in the case. The second letter, dated last Saturday states in part:

"We have determined that the microscopic hair comparison analysis testimony or laboratory report presented in this case included additional statements that exceeded the limits of science and was, therefore, invalid."

"Exceeded the limits of science." So the FBI offered last week to conduct DNA testing on hair samples found in the victim's car. But Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood didn't see a need for it.

There was testimony in the 1994 trial that hairs found in the victim's car belonged to an African-American -- Manning is black, and the victims -- Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller were white. The Justice Department pointed out that " examiner cannot testify with any statement of probability whether the hair is from a particular racial group, but can testify that a hair exhibits traits associated with a particular racial group."

In short, what the Justice Department is saying, is that just because the hair you found looks like it belongs to someone who is black, doesn't necessarily conclude overwhelming evidence of Manning's guilt, just because he too is black. As you can also imagine, the case wherein a black man was accused of murdering two white people in the Deep South, was marked by uncomfortable echoes of the kind of racial attitudes you'd find in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

During the jury selection for the trial, Andrew Cohen, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote that black jurors were dismissed "...because they regularly read Jet and Ebony magazine. White jurors who read Time and Newsweek were kept; a black juror who read those same magazines was struck."

In addition to this, a jailhouse informant at the trial, who told jurors that Manning confessed to him to shooting both victims, has since recanted his testimony, telling defense lawyers he thought he would get consideration from prosecutors for incriminating Manning.

And according to the Washington Post, fingerprints found in the victim's car did not match Manning's or the victims, and have never been checked against government databases. The case against Willie Jerome Manning deserves a closer examination. Not just for his sake, but the for victims' families and the public at large.

Tonight, against the wishes of Mississippi's Governor and Attorney General, the state's Supreme Court gave us all a chance to see that everyone involved in this case, gets that.