Another Willie Jerome Manning tragedy: DNA testing won't help

Recently my Facebook news feed has been alive with concern about the impending execution of one Willie Jerome Manning in the State of Mississippi.

And these are important concerns. The US justice system has established a shameful record of wrongful convictions and executions. Groups like the "Innocence Project," very active on the Manning case, have done the US justice system a great service, preventing that system from putting to death dozens of wrongly convicted people.

I share those concerns, and not just because "wrongful" executions are wrong, but because all executions are wrong. I think the death penalty is an abomination. Even if Manning were convicted by a jury of his peers (arguably not so here—the jury was all-white, and Manning is black), I object to his being put to death by the State.

But even when you feel you're on the right side of an issue, you can come across advocacy that, while it's on your side, is still either entirely misinformed, or, worse, dishonest. This (Just Test the DNA: Willie Jerome Manning and the Death Penalty) is one of those. It comes from one of my favourite web-sites, one on which I rely to remain accurately informed.

First, like most sympathetic writing on the Willie Jerome Manning case, it ignores that he's been convicted of two double-murders: this one, a couple of white, 20-something students, and, in the other, a 90-year-old black woman and her 60-year old daughter. Interestingly, most anti-capital punishment activists writing on the Manning case completely ignore the black women, and concentrate instead on the 20-something white couple. Hmmm.

You can't fault activists for demanding that DNA testing be done—anyone objecting to it sounds like a moron, and the internet is full of it. "How can you execute a guy before you've done DNA testing to make sure?" Etc. From the way Manning's advocates go on about it, you'd think the woman had been raped, and the authorities had a sperm sample that had never been analyzed.

Not quite. What's at stake is a hair that was found in the couple's car, which the trial prosecutor—erroneously—claimed was a significant bulwark in the prosecution's case; that is, the FBI had determined it came from a black man, so Manning must have been the killer. In fact, this was a stupid argument, since a random hair in a car proves almost exactly zero—unless it turned out actually to be Manning's. And even then, any defence attorney in her/his sleep could argue that a single hair on a car seat could have been blown in by the wind.

(Ontarians may well remember that evidence about hair played a crucial role in the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin in the killing of Christine Jessop in the 1980s. The discrediting of non-DNA related hair evidence played a crucial role in his exoneration.)

In Manning's case (and as the Mississippi Attorney General has argued), there was other evidence that he was the killer: the bullets in the corpses were determined to have come from the same gun that Manning had used in target practice on a tree. Manning's girlfriend told police that he had done so, and when bullets were retrieved from the tree, they were found to have come from the same gun that killed the students.

Activists have said that the FBI have since cast doubt on the ballistic evidence, but, in fact, they only state that the person who testified about that evidence committed an "error." What was the error? He apparently testified that the bullets certainly came from the gun used in both situations, but should only have said that he could testify to the gun-bullet relationship "to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty," and not that the evidence ruled out "all other guns in the world."

(It took some digging, but here's the Department of Justice letter in question.)

If that expert had testified in an error-free manner, he would have said, "I can't rule out that there's some other gun in the world that could have produced the ballistics we found in these bullets, but I can say to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that the markings we found were consistent with all of them being fired from the same gun." Would that have made much difference to how the expert's testimony was viewed by the jury? I don't think so.

The article also gives some column inches to arguments about the credibility of the witnesses in the case. Unfortunately, the only witnesses whose credibility is in question are those for the second case, the two black women, so it's entirely irrelevant.

Even in the very unlikely event that DNA testing of a single hair in some unpredictable way were to prove that Manning did not kill the two white students, even though the bullets in their bodies appear to have been his, he'll still be put to death in the State of Mississippi for the killings of the two black women.

Now it is Mississippi, and any trial in which the defendant is black, and the victims, prosecutors, and jury are white, is suspect, but innocence activism in this case will only delay Manning's death.

Groups such as the Innocence Project, and Ontario's Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, usually choose the cases they wish to pursue very carefully. This is because if your advocacy is based on the conviction that its object is actually innocent, and s/he turns out in the end not to be so, you've managed to discredit your cause, and ruin your credibility as a spokesperson for the actually innocent.

Protecting the innocent is very important (and sometimes impossible), but the crucial point is we should not be killing the innocent or the guilty. The death penalty dehumanizes everybody involved. Killing Willie Jerome Manning will be a tragedy, and a miscarriage of justice, whether he killed these four people or not.


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