Monday, May 6, 2013

"There's Always Something Else You Can Do"

We fucked up.  We'll try and fix it if you give us a chance.
So says the FBI, though admittedly those are my words not the Bureau's.  You may remember that last year the FBI said it was going to review thousands of cases to see if its bullshit hair and fiber comparisons led to wrongful convictions.  

Enter Willie Jerome Manning (also known as "Fly").  Manning is on death row for the 1992 abduction and murder of Mississippi State University students Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller.  Manning says he didn't do it.  He's always said that.  He was convicted and sentenced to die anyway.  And while I wasn't at the trial and haven't read the transcript, it's not hard to see why.  Here's the evidence against him:
  • In the days after the murder, Manning was seen with, and trying to sell, stuff that looked a lot like stuff stolen from the Steckler and Miller and from another car that was in the parking lot with Miller's car that night.
  • Earl Jordan, Manning's cousin said Manning confessed to him.
  • A jailhouse snitch said Manning confessed to him.
  • Manning's girlfriend said that a few days before the killing, she saw Manning shoot a gun at a tree.  FBI experts said that the bullets in the tree came from the same gun as the bullets that killed Steckler and Miller and that it's impossible that they could be wrong.
  • A bit of hair found in Miller's car came, testimony from another FBI "expert," came from a black person.  Manning's black, Steckler and Miller were white.
Like I said, you'd have convicted him, too.

Of course, there's the other side.
  • The jailhouse snitch has recanted.
  • Jordan had previously implicated two other men in the killings.  Finally, he said that Manning confessed, but said he didn't act alone.
  • The hair sample?  The FBI has pretty much conceded that they didn't know what they were talking about.
  • There's a fingerprint in the car that doesn't belong to Manning, Steckler, or Miller.  Nobody's bothered to run it against national databases in an effort to see whose it might be.
  • Ballistics may not be completely worthless, but it ain't anywhere near that precise.  And oh, yeah, ballistics experts are, indeed, sometimes wrong.
Does that make Manning innocent?  No.  Is it enough to cast some doubt on his guilt?  On April 25th, a  5-4 majority of the Mississippi Supreme Court said no.
Our examination anew of the record reveals that conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt was presented to the jury. 
And since the jury heard such overwhelming evidence (even if much of it was bullshit), he shouldn't be allowed to have forensic testing before we kill him.

The dissenting 4 didn't say Manning's innocent.  They just said that his request for further forensic testing should have been granted.  If it happens to point to him, cool.  If it points to someone else?  Well, damn, we should know that and go after the guy.  And if it somehow exonerates him (DNA testing can be done now that simply couldn't have been done in 1994 when Manning was tried and convicted and sentenced to die), well, that's a good thing.  Justice Kitchens put it this way.
If the testing of biological material collected during the investigation proves that DNA in that material came from a donor or donors other than Manning, this would strongly suggest that someone besides Manning (or, possibly, someone in addition to Manning), was a perpetrator. The same can be said of further examination of the latent fingerprints lifted from the automobile of one of the victims, which have not been identified and have never been compared to the millions of known fingerprints contained in any of the state, local, and/or national databases.
Besides, 
The victims’ families and the public at large deserve to know whether another, or an additional, perpetrator was involved. If such a person can be identified, he or she should be prosecuted. Further examination of the fingerprints and biological evidence in this case could help achieve that end and/or significantly reinforce the basis for Manning’s conviction. Interests far beyond Manning’s are at stake, and whatever potential harm the denial seeks to avert is surely outweighed by the benefits of ensuring justice by the scientific analysis of all of the trace evidence that the authorities were able to collect from on or about the victims’ bodies. Unless and until that is done, the investigation of these horrible crimes will remain incomplete.
Which seems to make eminently good sense.  And which is why, sadly, it's in dissent.  On the other hand, the court's decision, recent though it is, predates the FBI's offer to do further testing.  The governor can grant a reprieve to make it happen.  And there's pressure on him to do that.  There's also, of course, pressure the other way, the voices calling for the killing.

There is, for instance, Oktibbeha County District Attorney Forrest R. Allgood.  According to Spencer S. Hsu  in the Washington Post, he 
said any reconsideration of the students’ case should include consultation with the victims’ families.
Because, you know, they're the ones who ought to decide how important it is to know whether Manning's guilty or whether he acted alone.   Or is it because they're looking forward to watching Manning die on Tuesday and don't want to be disappointed?  Or because they're actually forensic scientists themselves and can . . . . Oh, hell.  It's because that's an easy way for Allgood to do nothing.  Blame the victim's family for whatever.  Sure.

But then Allgood told the truth.
The bottom line is when you start looking at these things, there’s always something else you can do and it never ends.
 We're never really sure.  There's always more to do.  But damn, close enough for government work.

The governor says he's looking into it.

He doesn't have a lot of time.  Manning's due to be executed Tuesday.

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