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Mississippi Supreme Court blocks execution of Manning

Rod Guajardo / The Natchez Democrat — Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps speaks to media during a press conference at  the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman.
Rod Guajardo / The Natchez Democrat — Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps speaks to media during a press conference at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman.

By ROD GUAJARDO and wire reports

The Natchez Democrat

PARCHMAN — The Mississippi Supreme Court indefinitely delayed Tuesday’s scheduled execution of the man convicted in the death of Natchez native Jon Steckler.

The ruling came in four hours before Willie Jerome Manning was set to die by lethal injection.

The court ruled 8-1 to stop the execution, but did not offer further explanation.

The court had previously split 5-4 in decisions in the case.

Click here for a pdf of the court’s order: Mississippi Supreme Court order

Manning was convicted in 1994 for the 1992 shooting deaths of Steckler and his fellow Mississippi State University student Tiffany Miller. Prosecutors said Manning was arrested after he tried to sell some items belonging to the victims.

The U.S. Justice Department has said in recent days that there were errors in FBI agents’ testimony about ballistics tests and hair analysis in the case.

The FBI offered to conduct DNA testing.

Manning’s lawyers said in filings with the Mississippi Supreme Court that the execution should be blocked based on the Justice Department’s disclosures and until further testing could be done.

The Mississippi Attorney General’s office rebutted that testing wouldn’t exonerate Manning because the evidence is so overwhelming.

An FBI letter, sent late Monday, said there was incorrect testimony related to tests on bullets in the case.

Manning’s girlfriend testified that, days before the slayings, Manning had been firing a handgun at a tree behind their house, according to court records. An FBI expert had testified that bullets from the tree matched those recovered from the crime scene.

That kind of examination “is not based on absolute certainty but rather a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” the letter said.

Last week, the FBI said in a letter to state officials and others that its microscopic analysis of evidence, particularly of hair samples found in the car of one of the victims, contained erroneous statements.

Attorney General Jim Hood said Tuesday in a statement that senior attorneys in his office believe the stay will be lifted after the court has been able to review a flurry of recent filings.

Hood said FBI experts and others used more conclusive language in testimony up until National Academy of Science issued a report on forensics in 2009.

“Since then the policy of many experts has been to qualify their testimony by using the magic words ‘to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,’” Hood said. “The FBI agents in this case were simply following the standards used in their fields at the time.

“I am sorry that the victims’ families will have to continue to live this 20-plus year nightmare.”

Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said Manning was taken from a holding cell back to Building 29, where death row is located, and that the prison would return to normal operations.

Epps said Manning was optimistic Tuesday morning the execution would be stopped.

“He denied committing the crimes and was asking and hoping he could get a DNA test done,” Epps said. “He constantly denied committing the crimes he was convicted of.

“He said he had faith in God and all was in His hands.

“He ate everything (for breakfast), two chicken fingers and a small portion of potatoes (for lunch), and requested no last meal,” Epps said.