How The FBI Majorly Screwed Up A Death Penalty Case And Admitted It Just In Time

CREDIT: Shutterstock

An African American death row inmate was just added to the growing innocence list compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), after he was cleared in the murder of an elderly woman and her daughter — but he’s still sentenced to die for the murders of two college students. The twist? He may be exonerated in that crime as well, since the FBI admitted flawed forensic testimony was used to convict him.

In 1994, Willie Manning was convicted for the murder of two Mississippi State University students, Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, and received two death penalty sentences. During the murder trial on behalf of Steckler and Miller, prosecutors relied on witness and FBI expert testimonies. An FBI forensics expert said Manning’s hair matched hair found at the crime scene. A ballistics expert from the FBI, who also testified against Manning, argued that a tree in Manning’s mom’s yard was used as target practice, and that bullets found inside were fired from the same weapon used to kill the victims (even though the firearm was never found). The testimony was based on a microscopic comparison of tool marks on the bullets. Additionally, witness Earl Jones, who was serving jail time, said Manning confessed to killing the two students and co-conspiring with a second person.

Two years later, Manning was convicted in the murders of 90-year-old Alberta Jordan and Emmoline Jimmerson, who were killed in 1993. He subsequently received two more death penalty sentences, but was absolved of all charges in February, after a key witness recanted his testimony and the police failed to turn over additional evidence.

Willie Manning

Willie Manning

CREDIT: Mississippi Department of Corrections

However, the retrial was only possible because of a surprising turn of events in 2013. Hours before Willie Manning’s scheduled death on May 7, the execution was stayed by the state’s Supreme Court. While an official reason for the stay was never provided, Manning’s defense attorneys are confident that FBI failures were responsible. Days before his execution for killing the college students, the FBI sent three letters to the district attorney’s office, admitting that the experts who testified against Manning presented flawed evidence.

The first letter, addressed to District Attorney Deforest Allgood on May 2, states,

We have determined that the microscopic hair comparison analysis testimony or laboratory report presented in this case included statements that exceeded the limits of science and was, therefore, invalid. While this case did not involve a positive association of an evidentiary hair to an individual, the examiner stated or implied in a general explanation of microscopic hair comparison analysis that a questioned hair could be associated with a specific individual to the exclusion of all others — this type of testimony exceeded the limits of science.

Two days later, the FBI wrote,

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….The scientific analysis of hair evidence permits an examiner to offer an opinion that a questioned hair possesses certain traits that are associated with a particular racial group. However, since a statistical probability cannot be determined for classification of hair into a particular racial group, it would be error for an examiner to testify that he can determine that the questioned hairs were from an individual of a particular racial group.

A third letter sent on May 6 reads,

The science regarding firearms examinations does not permit examiner testimony that a specific gun fired a specific bullet to the exclusion of all other guns in the world. The examiner could testify to that information, to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, but not absolutely. Any individual association or identification conclusion effected through this examination process is based not on absolute certainty but rather a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.

Federal authorities are now conducting DNA tests of the physical evidence collected at the scene, but the FBI’s findings of flawed evidence in Manning’s case barely scratches the surface of a larger problem. Just last month, the FBI acknowledged its use of flawed forensic evidence to convict people over several decades — and that many of of the cases resulted in death sentences for the defendants. Specifically, comparisons of hair belonging to the defendant and hair found at respective crime scenes were scientifically erroneous. In 2012, the Bureau launched an investigation into the use of flawed hair analysis, the FBI found that hair matches were used in 2,500 cases. As of mid-April, the FBI reviewed 342 of those cases, and found that FBI forensic experts presented flawed evidence in 257 trials. Robert Dunham, the executive director of DPIC, says the FBI has discovered 33 capital cases in which hair analysis was used.

“It is always stunning when a man is exonerated from death row with evidence of his innocence, but Mr. Manning’s case presents the unimaginable possibility that an innocent man may have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in two different trials for two different offenses,” Dunham said, in a recent press release. “His cases present some of the classic hallmarks of innocence: racial overtones, unreliable witnesses, and police or prosecutorial misconduct. His second case includes an additional horrifying dimension – two different types of junk science masquerading as forensic evidence of his guilt.”

Robert Mink, one of Manning’s defense attorneys, told ThinkProgress that forensic and ballistics evidence wasn’t the only questionable evidence presented in trial. Indeed, circumstantial evidence from a car burglary was used against the defendant, because items from a stolen vehicle were in Manning’s possession. Prosecutors theorized that the murdered students left a fraternity house, witnessed Manning in the act of stealing a car (that didn’t belong to them), and tried to intervene. Then, he pulled a gun on them, forced the two to drive to the countryside, and killed them.

Moreover, according to Manning’s second defense attorney, David Voisil, Jordan’s since admitted he lied about Manning’s confession. Voisil told ThinkProgress that he and a third investigator located the ex-felon, at which point Jordan recanted his statement. But Jordan never signed an affidavit, so his statement has very limited usefulness.

“We believe he’s actually innocent,” said Mink. “He’s always maintained his innocence. He didn’t have any violent convictions. His criminal history was for things like theft.”

As to how Manning is feeling about these recent developments, Voisin shared, “He’s very happy that his conviction was vacated and that the prosecutor decided not to seek additional charges in the case involving the death of the elderly woman. He’s very cautious about it — he’s still on death row. He came within hours of being executed, and that was a very difficult experience, having to live through something like that.”

According to the National Registry of Exoneration, 45 people have been exonerated this year. In 2014, 125 inmates were exonerated — the highest count for any year on record. Six of the former inmates were on death row. And of the 1589 people exonerated to date, 743 are black — including the six taken off of death row last year.