Mississippi judges block more DNA tests in case sentenced to death

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that a death row inmate cannot have additional DNA tests performed on evidence from the crime scene of the deaths of two college students nearly 30 years ago.

Willie Jerome Manning, now 54, resides at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. He was convicted in 1994 of two murders for the December 1992 murder of Mississippi State University students in Oktibbeha County, Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller.

In 2013, shortly before Manning was due to be executed, the U.S. Department of Justice said errors had been made in FBI agents’ testimony about ballistic testing and hair analysis in the case. Manning’s attorneys asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to stop the lethal injection, and the judges voted 8 to 1 to postpone the execution to allow for evidence testing.

Manning’s lawyers said they hoped DNA testing would exonerate their client, who has maintained his innocence. In 2014, they sent a rape kit, fingernail scrapings, and other items to a lab. One of the attorneys, Rob Mink of Jackson, said the purpose of the testing was to answer whether DNA could be attributed to Manning.

In Thursday’s ruling, a majority of state Supreme Court justices wrote that Manning received “supposedly inconclusive results” after six years of fingerprint analysis and DNA testing.

Manning’s attorneys asked an Oktibbeha County circuit judge for permission to send items to a more specialized lab. The judge rejected that request and a majority of the judges agreed with the judge’s ruling on Thursday.

“If additional testing was allowed and another person’s DNA profile was discovered based on crime scene evidence, there is no evidence that it would change the outcome of Manning’s case,” Judge Robert Chamberlin wrote for the majority. .

Mink told the Associated Press on Friday that he was disappointed with the ruling.

“We are now considering what options he has for additional help,” Mink said.

The ruling noted that Manning’s cousin testified at the trial that Manning confessed to shooting the two students. The bodies of Steckler and Miller were found in rural Oktibbeha County, and Miller’s car went missing. The car was found the next morning. Prosecutors said Manning was arrested after trying to sell the victims’ items.

Judges Leslie King and Jim Kitchens disagreed with the majority decision on Thursday. King wrote that any harm from waiting for additional DNA testing in a specialized lab “is certainly minimal given that Manning has been sentenced to death.”

Manning is black and Steckler and Miller were white. At Manning’s trial, an FBI agent testified that some of the hair found at the crime scene belonged to “a person of the black race,” but that didn’t mean it came from Manning. In closing arguments, a prosecutor called the hair clips “as a way to implicate Manning because he was a member of the African-American race,” wrote King, the only black judge currently on the Mississippi Supreme Court.

A 2013 letter from the FBI said the agent’s 1994 testimony contained information about DNA testing of hers that contradicted what was known about such testing nine years later, Mink said.

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