Supreme court grants appeal to man convicted of killing Natchez college student

Published 12:12am Friday, July 26, 2013

JACKSON (AP) — The Mississippi Supreme Court has given death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning the chance to argue before a judge for DNA and fingerprint testing that he alleges will show him innocent in the deaths of two college students.

The high court on Thursday gave Manning 60 days to file a brief in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court, where he was convicted, to support his motion for DNA testing and fingerprint analysis.

The order reversed an earlier decision in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against Manning’s request for DNA testing.

Manning argues that technological strides in the past two decades in DNA testing could lead to proof that he is innocent of killing two Mississippi State University students in 1992.

The Supreme Court had stopped Manning’s execution on May 7 so it could further review his arguments.

The bodies of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller were found in rural Oktibbeha County in December 1992. Manning, now 44, was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to death. Prosecutors said Manning was arrested after he tried to sell some items belonging to the victims.

Manning’s efforts to stop his execution were supported by the U.S. Justice Department. The department had said there were errors in FBI agents’ testimony about ballistics tests and hair analysis in the case.

The FBI said its microscopic analysis of evidence, particularly of hair samples found in the car of one of the victims, contained erroneous statements. The FBI also said there was incorrect testimony related to tests on bullets in the case.

The FBI has offered to conduct the 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.

Also Thursday, the state Supreme Court denied Manning’s request for a hearing on the Justice Department’s filings on the reliability of expert testimony. It also denied Manning’s request to have his convictions set aside.