In a surprise move the Supreme Court in the southern US state of Mississippi has issued a last minute stay of execution to an African-American man, Willie Manning.
Manning was found guilty of murdering two white students in 1992.
The case made international headlines because Mississippi has so far refused to apply modern DNA tests to evidence in the case … and because the FBI has cast doubt on some of the evidence used at Manning’s trial in 1994.
I joined some of Willie Manning’s lawyers celebrating with family and supporters in a public park in Jackson, the Mississippi capital on Tuesday evening.
The park is only a couple of hundred meters from the state’s Supreme Court where hours earlier the stay had been issued.
Though Willie has remained optimistic for almost twenty years that he’d avoid the death penalty, I think it’s fair to say few others were as hopeful. They prayed for the best, of course, but prepared for the worst.
So much so that one of Manning’s legal team was half-way across the Mississippi Delta, on his way to the prison, when he got the news via his cell phone and turned round to come back to Jackson where the mood in his office was chipper.
All these years after the murders and Manning’s conviction people, even in this generally pro-death penalty state, have begun to realise the evidence against him may have been shaky, to say the least, and the Supreme Court obviously agreed.
Ben Russell, who represents the social justice group Mississippians Educating For Smart Justice told me:
“They had no choice … at this particular point in time we have too much coming in from the FBI and they were kind of forced into a position of we really need to take a moment, step back and look at this before we proceed any further”.
He is talking about two letters sent from the FBI to the state of Mississippi saying hair and ballistics DNA evidence used in the original trial was faulty.
That is remarkable not least because some of the trial analysis was provided by FBI scientists.
But there is more – a cell mate of Manning, who had originally said Manning confessed to the crime, has recanted.
Plus, Mississippi has so far refused to apply modern-day DNA techniques to the Manning case – something that seems to have really irked many people here.
Manning’s lawyers say they do not know how long the stay will last and they will need to be guided by the court as to what happens next but they are pushing for a new trial or, at the very least, for the disputed DNA evidence to be re-examined using modern techniques.
Robert Mink, one of Manning’s lawyers, said:
“We need to talk to experts who can advise us about the DNA testing that needs to be performed and also ballistics experts to advise us on the ballistics evidence that has recently come into question”
Standing in the public park, which by now is dappled with sunlight straining through the trees, Ben Russell of Mississippians Educating For Smart Justice told me that Manning’s case has struck a chord with people who fear the same could happen to them.
“Those of us who have been working on this case have been shocked to see exactly what’s been going on and it’s frightening. When people are made aware that there’s DNA that’s never been tested that two legs of the state’s case is built on testimony that the FBI has said is invalid … when you talk with the average Mississippians many will scratch their heads and say, even though I believe in the death penalty for some of these people, that is frightening”.
In his jail cell in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Prison, Willie Manning must be wondering where all this is leading.
Truth to tell, as I write, no one knows for sure.
The Supreme Court has it within its purview to quash the case – order a re-trial – or order modern-day DNA testing take place – or none of the above.
If it does order an examination of the DNA…such tests may or may not prove Manning’s innocence or guilt, they may or may not prove the existence of another alleged killer, they may or may not throw up brand new lines of inquiry.
All of this is up in the air right now but one thing is for sure.
Mississippi made history this week when it issued a stay of execution for an inmate who was within hours of dying at its hands.
So now it is all eyes on the Mississippi Supreme Court.