Justice for Willie Manning

Willie Manning Tree of Life

Willie Jerome Manning, on death row in Mississippi, was convicted at two separate trials of two unrelated double murders. He was exonerated of one of his convictions (Jimmerson-Jordan murders) on April 20, 2015, because the key witness recanted, saying his testimony had been coerced by the prosecutor and prepared by police; significantly, the prosecution withheld evidence that showed this witness must have been lying. If this evidence (police canvass notes) had not existed, or had not been withheld, Willie could well have faced execution on the basis of false, coerced, recanted testimony.
(See more about this case below, at

Willie is still fighting his other capital conviction (Stickler-Miller murders), for which he came within hours of execution on May 7, 2013. He has always maintained his innocence in this case. Forrest Allgood was the prosecutor in both Willie’s cases.

Image: Willie Manning, Starkville Daily News, 4.22.15

Image: Willie Manning,
Starkville Daily News, 4.22.15

Willie is appealing against a conviction and two death sentences for the murder of two students, Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller. In 2013 Willie was granted his request, first made in 2001, to have DNA testing and fingerprint comparison performed on items related to this case. Preliminary DNA testing on items found at the crime scene has been completed. Further DNA testing is being conducted on the rape kit, pubic hair combings and fingernail scrapings; comparisons are being made with Willie’s DNA profile and the DNA profiles of the victims. Fingerprint evidence from the crime scene and from a car linked by the State to the murders is being matched against a database.

Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller left Steckler’s fraternity house at Mississippi State University at approximately 1 a.m. on December 11, 1992, on their way to the trailer park where Miller lived. At about 2.15 a.m. Steckler was found on a rural road not far from Miller’s home, having been shot and run over by Miller’s car; he died soon afterwards. Miller’s body was found nearby; she had been raped and shot. Miller’s car was found parked outside apartments not far away.

An unlocked car which was parked outside the fraternity house that night was reported the next morning as burglarized. Prosecutors speculated that when the two students left the house they disturbed the burglar, who then forced them into Miller’s two-seater sports car (also parked outside the house), and traveled with them – presumably with one person sitting on another’s lap – before robbing and killing them.

In this case Willie has many serious issues to raise, including:

  • No physical evidence was found to link him directly to the murders. Footprints found at the murder scene did not match his footwear. Fingerprints were found at the crime scene that did not belong to the victims or any other known person, but none of them belonged to him. None of the hair, blood or fibers found at the scene corresponded with his. None of the items supposedly missing from the victims – two watches, a class ring, and perhaps a necklace – was linked to him.
  • No physical evidence linked Willie to the car burglary.
  • There was no proof that the car burglary was linked to the murders. The owner of the burglarized car, John Wise (one of Steckler’s fraternity brothers), identified a token found at the murder scene as one that had been in his car; but the crime scene token was a shiny gold color, whereas Wise described his token as having lost its shine. There were no fingerprints on the token, and four judges noted in their April 25 2013 dissent that the token may not have come from Wise’s car. Fingerprint lifts from the burgled car were not analysed.
  • The State accepted that Willie had alibi evidence up to 11 pm on the evening of the murders (he was at the 2500 Club). During post-conviction investigations several witnesses stated that they saw Willie at the club later than 11 pm, including between midnight and almost 1 am.
  • FBI hair testimony given at Willie’s trial has been shown to have been flawed. The expert wrongly stated that hair fragments vacuumed from the floor of Miller’s car belonged to an African American; the prosecutor then amplified this error by linking this hair to aspects of the case which the jurors had been led to associate with Willie. In other words,  “The FBI agent provided false testimony that was then used by the prosecutor at trial to suggest to the jury that Mr Manning was in the victim’s car.”
  • FBI expert ballistics testimony given at Willie’s trial has also been shown to have been flawed.
  • The State failed to disclose exculpatory evidence about three of its witnesses (including evidence about the witnesses’ incentives to testify in favor of the State e.g. one witness received the enormous sum of $17,500, and had the penalties for pending criminal charges hugely reduced). Yet the prosecutor himself highlighted the crucial role of witnesses in the outcome of the case.
  • Secretly recorded tapes and transcripts of a telephone conversation between Willie and a key witness were not presented to the jurors. This conversation reveals the witness’s role as an undisclosed State agent (she asked questions provided by the Sheriff). Willie’s replies were not incriminatory; however, the witness herself contradicted her court evidence (e.g. saying that she did not know anything about someone shooting at a tree), and stated that she was being threatened with prosecution.
  • Another key witness, a jailhouse informant, made inconsistent statements and an improbable “confession” involving four people being in a two-seater car, when one of those four was actually incarcerated in Alabama at the time of the crime. This witness was also able to pass a polygraph (lie detector) test implicating someone else in the crimes even before he supposedly heard Willie “confess”.
  • The State used a further witness despite a warning by his uncle that he was likely to be lying.
  • The prosecutor improperly labeled Willie as a ‘monster’.
  • African American people were improperly kept off Willie’s trial jury.
  • Willie’s trial attorneys were ineffective at the penalty stage.
  • There is a possible pattern of reliance on testimony procured unfairly (see below for points from Willie’s 1993 [Jimmerson-Jordan] case).

It was the Steckler-Miller case that brought Willie close to execution on May 7 2013, following a 5:4 decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court that denied him DNA testing and fingerprint comparison. 4 judges dissented from that decision, feeling strongly enough to issue separate statements (page 8 onwards) that included the following:
“Manning presented evidence at trial that undermined the State’s case against him.”

These statements, endorsed as they were by nearly half the judges involved in the decision,  calls into question the other 5 judges’ statement, publicized by the Attorney General, Jim Hood, that ‘conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt’ rendered testing unnecessary. Moreover, the 4 dissenting judges also noted that DNA testing might enhance public safety by identifying unknown perpetrators. (There is more about the judges’ decision on this website at More on Willie’s Cases.)

Willie appealed the decision, on the grounds that the 5 majority judges had used only the prosecution’s trial evidence when reaching their conclusion, and not the complete trial record or the subsequent appeals that had “eroded whatever credibility the State’s witnesses had”. He also cited improved DNA testing, known to have exonerated other defendants in the past. His appeal was rejected.

Shortly before Willie’s scheduled execution, as part of their review of widespread flaws in FBI forensic evidence, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) sent three letters to officials in Mississippi admitting that FBI expert testimony given at Willie’s trial regarding hair and ballistics was flawed. Two of the letters were about hair testimony.

The first letter revealed the error made when the FBI hair analyst gave the jurors a general explanation of microscopic hair comparison: he wrongly ‘stated or implied’ that a hair could be ‘associated with a specific individual to the exclusion of all others’. The second letter focused on another error: in a written report the analyst stated unequivocally that some of the hair tested in Willie’s case (fragments vacuumed from the floor of Miller’s car) was ‘of Negroid origin’, and in testimony he described it as being ‘African American’. The letter tells us that this ‘exceeded the limits of science’: he should instead have testified that the hair exhibited traits associated with African Americans.

The prosecutor drew on both the errors. The first error allowed him to narrow the options, relying on the “statistical weight” that had been wrongly attributed to microscopic hair comparison. The prosecutor amplified the second error: he not only described the hair fragments as African American in origin, he also linked it to aspects of the case which the jurors had been led to associate with Willie:

 “How many people could leave those hair fragments, left the house with the gun and the gloves, was trying to sell a ring and a watch like Jon Steckler’s, and also had the jacket from John Wise’s car…?”

As stated in Willie’s Reply to State’s Opposition“The FBI agent provided false testimony that was then used by the prosecutor at trial to suggest to the jury that Mr Manning was in the victim’s car.”

The FBI offered to provide testing of relevant hair evidence or related biological evidence.

The third DOJ letter (available here) outlined the errors that were made in ballistics analysis:
“The science regarding firearms examination does not permit examiner testimony that a specific gun fired a specific bullet to the exclusion of all other guns in the world.”

Willie had a ‘Motion to Stay Execution’ issued only 4 hours before the scheduled execution time on May 7 2013. The Mississipi Supreme Court judges split 8:1 on this motion, with the Presiding Justice, Justice Randolph, objecting. The decision was widely reported, including in The Washington Post. The Court did not issue a further order until July 23 2013, when it unanimously reversed its earlier 5:4 decision to deny testing. No reason was given for the reversal, but presumably all judges were now embracing views originally held only by the minority.

Willie asked the Mississippi Supreme Court for hearings to consider the reliability of expert testimony regarding ballistics and hair analysis, but in its ruling of July 25 2013 the Court denied him these hearings. A further request, to have his convictions set aside, was also turned down.

Evidence that might be suitable for DNA testing was located in April 2014. It was dispatched to a Cellmark lab in Dallas, Texas, later that year. The results from preliminary testing were made public on June 8 2015:
Rape kit
Three swabs were tested for semen. One was found to be positive, and the other two were inconclusive. All three will undergo DNA extraction and quantification to determine whether any male DNA is present.
Pubic hair
The sample of pubic hair combings was inconclusive for semen, so will undergo DNA extraction and quantification to determine whether any male DNA is present. The sample of pubic hair was negative for semen; no further testing on this sample is planned.
Fingernail scrapings (from both hands of both victims)
Preliminary testing established the concentration of human and male DNA present. The samples will all undergo a further process to increase the concentration of DNA; then DNA profiling will determine whether any male DNA profile is present that does not originate from the victims.
Hair from victims’ hands
No hairs were present in the evidence marked as “hair in Miller’s right hand” or the evidence marked as “hair in Steckler’s left hand”.

The Texas lab was taken over by a lab in Virginia later in 2015. The DNA testing will continue in Virginia.

On June 5 2015 the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court ordered that the Mississippi Crime Lab should work with Ron Smith & Associates, Inc. (MS) to attempt to determine matches for the fingerprints found at the murder scene and on the burgled car. The court order states that within 30 days the fingerprint lifts should be dispatched to the Mississippi Crime Lab to start this process .

Andrew Cohen wrote extensively about this case in The Atlantic in May 2013: you can read his analysis here, here, here and here. You can also watch a video analyzing the case at Democracy Now.

In May 2013 Oktibbeha County Circuit Judge Lee Howard denied Willie a post-hearing memorandum in this case  (see Associated Press report carried by many newspapers e.g. Jackson Free Press).

Appealing this decision, Willie stated in two briefs, submitted December 2013 and May 2014that this case involved substantial allegations of State misconduct resulting in wrongful conviction. He made the following points:

  • The crucial State witness, Kevin Lucious, committed perjury at Willie’s trial when he testified he watched from his apartment in Brookville Garden as Willie entered the elderly ladies’ apartment opposite. (Lucious’s trial testimony was unequivocal that he watched from his apartment; yet police canvass notes show that this apartment was vacant at the time, and that Lucious was not then living in a Brookville Garden apartment*).
  • The State erred in failing to disclose these police canvass notes to Willie’s trial counsel.
  • The State is mistaken in asserting that other witnesses corroborated Lucious’s trial testimony about seeing Willie enter the apartment: no other witness confirmed this.
  • Lucious testified at a post-conviction hearing that none of his trial testimony was true, and that he had lied because of pressure brought by the State.
  • Another witness, Herbert Ashford, undermined his own credibility by making statements that were contradictory.
  • The State erred in failing to disclose a crime lab report showing that a bloody shoe print next to one of the bodies could not have been left by Willie (the shoe print was size 8, whereas Willie’s shoe size is 10½ – 11).
  • Willie’s trial counsel was deficient in: failing to impeach Lucious; failing to interview Willie’s brother, Marshon Manning, and call him as a witness; failing to investigate Ashford or interview Teresa Bush, who was then living with Ashford; failing to investigate other possible suspects; and failing to investigate the shoeprint.
  • At the evidentiary hearing the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court erred in refusing to authorize for presentation all the documents that Willie had requested.
  • Forensic evidence yielded no clues as to the perpetrator. There were no prints found on the weapons used against the victims, and law enforcement found no DNA,  fibers, prints, or other physical evidence that pointed to any suspect.
  • Law enforcement made no arrest for well over a year following the homicides.
  • Amicus briefs submitted on Willie’s behalf point out that perjured testimony is the most common cause of wrongful conviction, especially in capital cases; and that incentivized witnesses contribute to these false convictions.

*Record Excerpts from this case, including the Police Department notes and the Mississippi Crime Laboratory footwear case notes, are available at the State of Mississippi JudiciaryThe police canvass notes (page 36 of the document) show that Kevin Lucious was not living in Brookville Garden at the time of the murders.  (The murders occurred on January 18, 1993; Lucious moved into Apartment 11-E on February 1, 1993; Apartment 11-E was vacant when the murders happened. The police canvass notes were not disclosed by prosecutors to Willie’s trial counsel.) 

The oral argument for this case was heard in October 2014; a video showing this can be viewed here, and will become available at Mississippi College School of Law. The court heard arguments from the defense and the State, focusing on the recanted testimony and the two pieces of evidence that were not available to the trial defense attorneys (police canvass notes and evidence about the size of the shoe print). During the oral argument Justice Dickinson raised the possibility of improper conduct by the State:

“…the two pieces of information that are missing are pieces of information that it seems at least arguable would have been favorable to Mr Manning’s defense. And they’re both missing from the files that were provided to defense counsel. Do you find that odd?” (see October 2014 oral argument video, 1:25.30).

In a 7:2 decision on February 12 2015the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court which had denied Willie post-conviction relief, reversed Willie’s conviction and sentence and remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial, declaring:
“the State violated Manning’s due-process rights by failing to provide favorable, material evidence.”  

The recanted testimony of both Kevin Lucious and his girlfriend is alluded to, but does not contribute to the Court’s decision. The missing evidence about the size of the bloody shoe print is not mentioned in the ruling.

The Court’s decision is based solely on the State’s failure to provide the police canvass notes to the defense attorneys, who, in the judges’ view, could not reasonably have found this evidence for themselves. The Court concludes that if the police canvass notes had been disclosed to the defense, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different.

The Court notes uncertainty about why this evidence was not disclosed:
“The Police Chief of Starkville, who at the time of the crime was the captain in charge of investigations and a lead officer in this case, testified at the PCR hearing [post-conviction-relief hearing, held in 2011] that he ordered the canvass of the apartment complex. The canvass cards were all present in the Starkville Police Department file. The district attorney testified that he never saw the canvass cards and that he would have investigated the discrepancy had he possessed the information. The record supports that neither the district attorney’s office nor the defense attorneys were aware of the evidence. The reasons why the information was not disclosed is immaterial.”

The oral argument provides more information about non-disclosure: Special Assistant Attorney General Melanie Thomas states there that the Starkville police chief testified at the evidentiary hearing (in 2011) that he copied the whole file, including the canvass notes, and gave it to the District Attorney (see October 2014 oral argument video, 1:10.25).

The Court concludes that there was “suppression of material evidence by a state actor”. This actor was presumably the Starkville Police Department, which the Court describes as “the primary investigative agency”; the Court makes it clear that the “prosecution team … includes both investigative and prosecutorial personnel”.

The Court also ruled that Willie’s counsel should not be deemed ineffective, as
“their preparation and presentation was hamstrung from the beginning due to undisclosed favorable, material evidence”.

The two dissenting judges adopted the State’s theory that Lucious may have been squatting in the empty apartment. At the oral argument Willie’s attorney, David Voisin, argued that this theory was “sheer speculation of hearsay of an unknown declarant” and that “the State did not present any confident proof of any kind of squatting” (see October 2014 oral argument video, 46:25.25).

You can read a report about the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in this case at the Huffington Post.

On April 20 2015 Judge Lee Howard (Oktibbeha County Circuit Court) signed an Order of Nolle Prosequi, stating that “…Due to the fact that a material witness for the state has now changed his testimony in this case on a number of material issues, the State is unable to meet its burden of proof”. In other words, the prosecutor, Forrest Allgood, did not wish to prosecute this case in a new trial; this closes the case. As a result, the Death Penalty Information Center has listed Willie as the 153rd death row exoneree

The order lists points made by Kevin Lucious in an affidavit that he gave on January 10, 2002, viz.

  1. His motivation for committing perjury was fear of being charged with the two murders.
  2. Sheriff Bryan and Captain Lindley prepared a false statement for him.
  3. He signed the statement only because District Attorney Forrest Allgood had told him he would not be charged with capital murder if he cooperated.
  4. He did not see Willie enter the victims’ apartment near the time of the murders.
  5. He never told Sheriff Bryan that he had seen Willie going into the apartment.
  6. He told Sheriff Bryan that Tyrone Smith had confessed to the murders and that Smith had disposed of the murder weapon near the crime scene.
  7. Willie never told him “he would not have killed the old ladies if he had known the [sic] didn’t have money”.
  8. Willie never told him “he went into the ladies’ apartment or did anything to them”.

You can read a report about the prosecutor dropping charges at Jackson Free Press.

It was fortunate for Willie  in terms of his appeal (though very unfortunate for him at the time of his trial) that the State failed to provide crucial police canvass notes, as it was this that led the Mississippi Supreme Court to reverse Willie’s conviction. Recantation by Lucious, and by Lucious’s former girlfriend, did not influence the court’s judgment (and became significant only when the prosecutor dropped charges); so Willie could well have been executed on the basis of highly questionable testimony. We recall that Troy Davis was executed in Georgia in 2011, despite the recantation of trial testimony by seven witnesses.

You can watch a video from an Al Jazeera America program showing Lucious’s former girlfriend describe the pressure to testify against Willie  (third video clip on the page).

The murders involved in the two cases were very different, as noted by former policeman, Vincent Hill (starts properly at 4.00 minutes):

“It doesn’t make sense… People are creatures of habit. Even serial killers are creatures of habit. They kill the exact same way every time… You don’t go shooting someone and then the next day saying, ‘No, that was too noisy – I want to stab them’.”

To read more about both cases, see More on Willie’s Cases.