Mississippi has set an execution date for Willie Jerome Manning next week, without ever having tested readily available DNA from the scene of the abduction and murder in which Manning was convicted. In a 5-4 decision Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court said DNA testing was not necessary due to the “overwhelming evidence in his case.” The Innocence Project provides background about the nature of that evidence:
Manning was convicted of the abduction and murder of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller in 1992 on mostly circumstantial evidence, including the testimony of a jailhouse informant who had previously given a statement implicating another person. No physical evidence has ever linked him to the crime, and he has consistently maintained his innocence. He has been seeking post-conviction DNA testing for years, insisting that technological strides made in the past 20 years could prove him innocent of the crime.
During trial, the prosecutor reasoned that a hair sample found in the victim’s car belonged to Manning because both Manning and the hair sample were African American. Dissenting Justice Leslie King pointed out, “Should a DNA test demonstrate that the African-American hairs found in Miller’s cart did not belong to Manning, then the infirmity in the prosecution’s emphasis on the importance of the evidence would be exposed. And it would certainly raise reasonable questions regarding Manning’s guilt.” But the majority nonetheless held such testing would not change the outcome of the case, disregarding the substantial evidence that informant testing is susceptible to bias and manipulation, and that the death penalty system is fraught with racial bias.
Even though DNA would supplant the prosecutor’s speculation about the hair sample with definitive scientific evidence, both the majority in Thursday’s ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court have refused to stand up for defendants’ right to raise the most robust defense possible. In a 2009 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a defendant who was willing to pay for a DNA test at his own expense was not entitled to the test, because allowing William Osburne to prove his potential innocence risks “unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice.”
Manning’s inability to access evidence in his own case is alarmingly common. Because it is law enforcement officers who investigate crimes, prosecutors are the gatekeepers to evidence that should be equally available to both parties, and they are institutionally positioned to block evidence that might threaten the convictions they’ve secured. Nonetheless, some states and law enforcers recognize that it is in everybody’s best interests to have all available evidence. Nine states have laws granting defense lawyers access to a national DNA database. And even Texas’ conservative attorney general recently came out in support of mandatory DNA testing. Manning’s execution is now scheduled for May 7, but his attorney has filed another motion asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.