Mississippi’s Supreme Court postponed Tuesday’s scheduled execution of Willie Jerome Manning, days after federal authorities acknowledged errors in FBI forensic testimony at his 1994 trial and just five hours before he was to die by lethal injection.
The court gave no reasoning for its decision, nor did it say what further action might be taken or when.
Manning was convicted of killing Mississippi State University students Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, whose bodies were discovered at a secluded spot outside Starkville, Miss., on Dec. 11, 1992.
The ruling to stay the execution came after an offer by the FBI to retest evidence in the case last week because some testimony by FBI expert Chester E. Blythe was scientifically invalid.
The Justice Department said that Blythe overstated at Manning’s 1994 trial the ability of examiners to trace hairs to a particular person and improperly claimed that hairs at the crime scene came from an African American. Manning is black; the victims were white.
Manning’s attorneys said they welcomed the stay but awaited further word on whether the court would grant relief or a retesting of the DNA evidence.
Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, which joined Manning’s attorneys in filing suit to preserve a rape kit, fingernail scrapings, hairs and fingerprints for testing even if the execution took place, said he was pleased with the decision.
“It’s a shame that we had to litigate it in this way, though — for the victims, their families and Mr. Manning,” Carrington said, “Reason should have prevailed long ago.”
The project said retesting would improve the criminal justice system by either confirming Manning’s guilt or possibly identifying another or additional culprits .
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said he was sorry that “the victims’ families will have to continue to live this 20-plus-year nightmare.” But he said he was confident that the death sentence eventually would be carried out.
Tuesday’s ruling marked a turnabout for the state high court. Last month, it denied Manning’s request for DNA testing, citing “overwhelming” evidence of his guilt in a 5 to 4 ruling.
On Tuesday, the court ruled 8 to 1 to stop the execution.
The Justice Department findings stemmed from a review of FBI hair cases that was triggered by a series of articles in The Washington Post last year about problems with the federal government’s handling of hair evidence in thousands of cases nationwide.
On Tuesday, the author of the Mississippi court’s April majority ruling was the lone dissenter. Presiding Justice Michael K. Randolph wrote that the defense raised issues that had been fully litigated, while failing to produce supporting witness affidavits or identify Justice Department and FBI personnel involved in reviewing the case.
“Our established law and justice require more,” Randolph said.
Randolph also criticized the Justice Department review, adding, “I should not be surprised,” given that it is the same department that he said “grants and enforces Miranda warnings to foreign enemy combatants” and has withheld certain documents in Operation Fast and Furious, the botched federal gun-running sting.
Manning was arrested after trying to sell items that belonged to Steckler.
Separately, Manning was convicted and sentenced to death for killing two elderly women in their apartment in Starkville in 1993. That sentence remains on appeal.