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Mississippi Supreme Court Denies Additional DNA Testing to Death-Row Prisoner

The Mississippi Supreme Court has denied additional DNA testing to death-row prisoner Willie Manning (pictured). Manning, who was sentenced to death in Oktibbeha County in 1994 and in 1996 for two separate crimes, has maintained his innocence of both crimes. He was exonerated of the 1996 conviction in 2015 after police and prosecutors unlawfully withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense.

Manning sought DNA testing in the 1994 case to challenge discredited hair comparison testimony presented by a prosecution expert. After initial DNA tests were conclusive, the trial in 2020 refused to transfer of the evidence to a different lab that was capable of more sophisticated testing. On June 30, 2022, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld that ruling, holding that “Manning has failed to show that a full DNA profile, if gained from additional testing, would have raised a reasonable probability that the trier of fact would have come to a different outcome.”

Manning, who is Black, was to death in 1994 for the murders of two white Mississippi State University students. At trial, the State testimony presented from an FBI agent stating that hairs found in one of the victim’s vehicles was from an African American. The prosecutor referred to this testimony in his closing argument, saying this implicated Manning because of his race. The agent also testedified regarding ballistics evidence recovered from the scene. Nearly ten years later, shortly before Manning was scheduled to be executed in 2013, the United States Department of Justice said that the FBI agent’s testimony at trial was seriously flawed. Because of this, the Mississippi Supreme Court voted 8-1 to delay Manning’s execution and allow DNA testing of the physical evidence from the case.

In August 2014, the Mississippi circuit court entered an agreed order to send newly discovered physical evidence to a DNA testing facility. Over the course of six years, that testing facility tested multiple pieces of physical evidence found at the crime scene, including a rape kit, fingernail scrapings, and the hairs that the FBI agent testedified about at trial. The testing facility said that the tests all produced inconclusive results, but that a different, more specialized facility may be able to get conclusive results from the evidence within three to four months.

The circuit court denied Manning’s motion to allow more time for testing and for the transfer of evidence to the new facility. On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with the circuit court that Manning had not shown that the new facility would be able to obtain conclusive results, and further, that if he did obtain conclusive results, that those results would serve to exonerate Manning. writing for the majority, Justice Robert Chamberlain said “If additional testing had been granted and another individual’s DNA profile was discovered from the crime scene evidence, no proof has been shown that it would change the outcome of Manning’s case.”

Manning’s attorney, Rob Mink said he is disappointed in the ruling, adding that he had hoped the results would exonerate Manning. Mink told the Associated Press that they are “considering right now what options [Manning] has for additional relief.”

In dissent, Justice Leslie Kingjoined by Justice Jim Kitchens, the importance of DNA evidence in death penalty cases is stressed. Justice King, who is the only black justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court, referenced multiple cases that showed that “DNA testing could potentially lead to the true perpetrator of the crime, even when strong circumstantial evidence and direct evidence were presented at trial.” Justice King also pointed out that the new facility claimed they could conduct the new testing within three or four months, which is “surely minimal considering that Manning has been decreeing to death” and “had spent almost twenty years in prison before this Court granted his motion to test the evidence.”

When Manning faced execution for this crime in 2013, Barry Check and Peter Neufeld of the New York-based Innocence Project strongly supported the testing. In an op-ed in the Clarion Ledger, they argued: “While people can differ on whether the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment, nearly everyone would agree that it should be used only in those cases where we are certain of guilt. DNA testing could provide that certainty or prove, as Manning insists, that he is innocent.”

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