JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — A Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that a death row inmate will not be allowed to request further DNA testing on crime scene evidence from the shooting deaths of two college students nearly 30 years old.
Willie Jerome Manning, now 54, is still being held at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. He was convicted in 1994 of two counts of capital murder in the December 1992 murders of Mississippi State University students Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller in Oktibbeha County.
In 2013, shortly before Manning’s scheduled execution, the US Department of Justice said there had been errors in the testimony of FBI agents about ballistics tests and hair analysis in the affair. Manning’s attorneys asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to stop the lethal injection, and the justices voted 8 to 1 to delay the execution to allow the evidence to be tested.
Manning’s attorneys said they hoped DNA testing would exonerate their client, who maintained his innocence. In 2014, they sent a rape kit, nail scrapings and other items to a lab. One of the attorneys, Rob Mink of Jackson, said the purpose of the tests was to determine if any DNA was traceable to Manning.
In Thursday’s decision, a majority of state Supreme Court justices wrote that Manning received “allegedly inconclusive results” after six years of fingerprinting and DNA testing.
Manning’s attorneys asked an Oktibbeha County circuit judge for permission to send items to a more specialized lab. The judge denied that request and a majority of judges accepted the judge’s decision on Thursday.
“If further testing had been granted and another individual’s DNA profile was discovered from the evidence at the crime scene, no evidence has been shown that this would change the outcome of the Manning case,” wrote Justice Robert Chamberlin for the majority.
Mink told The Associated Press on Friday that he was disappointed with the decision.
“We’re looking at what options he has for further relief right now,” Mink said.
The ruling noted that during the trial, Manning’s cousin testified that Manning confessed to shooting the two students. The bodies of Steckler and Miller were found in rural Oktibbeha County and Miller’s car was missing. The car was found the next morning. Prosecutors said Manning was arrested after trying to sell items belonging to the victims.
Justices Leslie King and Jim Kitchens opposed the majority decision on Thursday. King wrote that any potential harm while awaiting further DNA testing in a specialist laboratory “is surely minimal given that Manning has been sentenced to death.”
Manning is black, and Steckler and Miller were white. During Manning’s trial, an FBI agent testified that some hair found at the crime scene came from “a black individual”, but that did not mean the hair came from Manning. In closing arguments, a prosecutor mentioned the hair fragments ‘as a way to implicate Manning because he was a member of the African-American race,’ wrote King, the only black justice currently on the Mississippi Supreme Court. .
A 2013 letter from the FBI said the agent’s 1994 testimony included information about hair DNA testing that contradicted what was known about those tests nine years later, Mink said.