Agents for the Prosecution

Willie Jerome Manning’s name and picture have reappeared in US and international newspapers over the last few days in connection with what a UK newspaper, The Independent, headlines as an ‘American Justice Scandal’, and another UK paper, The Daily Mail, calls a ‘Shock Report into FBI Errors’. This interest in the injustice inflicted on Willie and others does not appear to have been shared by the Mississippi press.  

The Washington Post reveals the FBI’s findings that as many as 27 death row prisoners may have had their trials tainted by forensic hair testimony that was unsound; Willie’s case is cited as one where the FBI has already admitted that such evidence was flawed. The article includes videos of two former prisoners speaking movingly of how flawed hair testimony at trial resulted in their spending many years on death row (both men have since been exonerated by DNA evidence). One of them asks, as Willie must now be asking himself, “Will my name be cleared?” The other expresses his gratitude for DNA, gratitude which Willie will be unable to share unless his own DNA testing is sanctioned.

In some of the 27 cases, testimony linked hair specifically to the defendants; in Willie’s case the (now discredited) testimony specified only a link with a person of African American origin. It was the prosecutor, Forrest Allgood, who extended the link to Willie himself, as Justice King noted in his dissent to Willie’s scheduled execution:

“The sole purpose of the prosecution’s emphasis on the fact that the hair samples found in Miller’s car were of African-American origin appears to have been to lead the jury to construct a faulty syllogism. That syllogism would be as follows: First, that hairs from an African American were found in Miller’s car. Second, Manning is an African American. Third, because Manning is an African American he must have killed Miller and Steckler.”

The Huffington Post’s report raises a further point when it quotes Denny LeBoeuf’s assertion that forensic scientists may be working as ‘agents for the prosecution’. The report questions the continuing use of the death penalty while ‘science (is) distorted to get a conviction at any cost’.

Perhaps the FBI’s investigation and admissions of error signal a change of attitude: it is certainly encouraging that in Texas, where the number of executions is particularly high, the Texas Forensic Science Commission has now directed labs to start scrutinizing hair cases. Let us hope that similar action will be taken in Mississippi, so that Willie can at last move forward in his quest for justice.

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