Lawyer: Man who killed Natchez college student ‘sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit’

Published 2:56 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2023

By Mina Corpuz

Mississippi Today

As the state seeks to set his execution date, Willie Jerome Manning continues to maintain his innocence, challenging a double-murder conviction that his attorneys say was based on unreliable evidence, including the recanted word of a jailhouse informant and forensics the Justice Department deemed faulty.

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Manning was convicted of the shooting deaths of Mississippi State University students Tiffany Miller and Jon Steckler of Natchez in 1994. Manning has pursued appeals and post-conviction relief that have questioned the state’s evidence and testimony that served as the foundation of his conviction.

“Willie Manning is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit,” states the opening line of his Sept. 29 petition for post-conviction relief.

 

Last month, Attorney General Lynn Fitch asked for a stay of Manning’s execution, granted in 2013, to be lifted and for his execution to be scheduled. She also is seeking an execution date for Robert Simon Jr., who has been on death row for over 30 years.

In response, Manning’s attorneys from the Office of Post Conviction Counsel are seeking to dismiss the motion and allow him to continue to challenge his conviction.

His attorneys said in an Oct. 10 statement that the state hasn’t responded to the petition or considered the evidence. The state said deadlines in other death penalty cases through the end of the year have prevented it from responding to Manning’s petition, according to court records.

The court approved a Dec. 29 extension.

As of Monday, the Mississippi Supreme Court has not yet set an execution date for Manning.

The bodies of Miller and Steckler were discovered early Dec. 11, 1992. Steckler was shot in the back of the head and run over with Miller’s car. Miller was shot in the face at close range, and she was found with one leg out of her pants and underwear and her shirt pulled up, according to court documents.

 

From the beginning, law enforcement struggled to come up with leads, including a theory that the murders were connected to a car break-in that happened outside of a university fraternity that Steckler was a member of. The sheriff believed the couple encountered Manning during a break-in and he forced them to drive to another location, where he killed them.

It wasn’t until months after the shootings that Manning became a prime suspect. The state argued that he was caught selling items linked to Jon and taken from the burglarized car. Because there wasn’t physical evidence to link him to the murders or the car burglary, Manning’s attorneys argued that this urged the state to turn to jailhouse informants.

Manning, who has spent more than half of his 55 years on death row, allegedly confessed to the killings to his cousin, Earl Jordan. Jordan lied about the confession and another man, Frank Parker, who was also in jail, lied about overhearing Manning talking to another man about how he disposed of the murder weapon, according to new affidavits cited in the post-conviction petition.

His attorneys argue that the testimony of Paula Hathorn, Manning’s former girlfriend, was not entirely reliable because law enforcement pressured her for her cooperation, which included receiving a cash reward of $17,500 for being a state witness at trial, according to court documents.

She also provided the state with the link to a gun believed to have killed Steckler and Miller. An FBI firearms examiner matched bullets found on the victims’ bodies to ones removed from trees in Manning’s yard, which she said he shot at for target practice, according to court records.

A 2013 letter from the Department of Justice said there were errors from FBI testimony about firearms and hair analysis. This led to the delay of Manning’s scheduled execution to allow the testing of evidence, including a rape kit and fingernail scrapings.

The firearms testimony was an error because the science behind 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”, according to court documents.

A firearms expert who worked with Manning’s attorneys and commented on findings of the DOJ’s 2013 letter provided affidavits that year. In another affidavit provided this year, the expert said new research and studies have shown that firearm identification and toolmark analysis are an unreliable form of forensic science, according to court records.

Manning should be granted a new trial based on the state’s use of scientifically invalid testimony, his attorneys argued.

“There are already compelling reasons to question the reliability of the convictions,” the post-conviction relief petition states. “When the totality of available evidence is reviewed, there is no longer any reliable basis for Manning’s convictions to stand.”

Attorneys laid out grounds for the court to grant relief, including how the state allegedly violated Manning’s due process rights when it “intentionally or merely failed to disclose” evidence favorable to his defense, including the sheriff’s arrangement for Jordan to cooperate in exchange for reduced charges and how the overheard conversation about Manning disposing of the weapon never happened, according to court records.

Manning has already been exonerated in another double murder case. His attorneys noted similarities in how law enforcement pursued a case against him.

In 1993, Manning was accused of killing 90-year old Alberta Jordan and her 60-year-old daughter Emmoline Jimmerson in their Starkville apartment, and convicted for their murders in 1996.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial in the case after determining the state violated Manning’s due-process rights “by failing to provide favorable, material evidence,” according to court records. Since the state’s main witness recanted his statements in sworn affidavits, then-Oktibbeha County District Attorney Forrest Allgood dismissed the charges, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

A study by the registry found that false testimony or accusations were the single largest factor in wrongful homicide convictions between 1989 and 2012.