On May 7 2013, exactly one year ago, Willie Jerome Manning’s scheduled execution was cancelled with only four hours to spare. Controversy surrounded the Mississippi Supreme Court’s refusal to allow Willie DNA and fingerprint testing; this was heightened when the Department of Justice admitted that FBI agents had presented flawed hair and ballistics testimony at his trial*. National and international media was buzzing with concern that Mississippi might be about to execute an innocent man.
For one news outlet in Mississippi, however, these issues might as well not have existed.
In its news report on May 7 2013, the Columbus Dispatch ignored the significant, contentious points being reported and discussed elsewhere; it seems to have decided that its readers did not need this information. It also differed from other outlets in remaining silent on the defense arguments of Willie’s case, reporting only the prosecution’s version of events from Willie’s trial nineteen years previously. It even cited as incriminating ballistics evidence that had been publicly discounted by the Department of Justice and FBI the previous day. Its one-sided approach contravenes the basic tenets of news reporting – fairness and balance.
This newspaper also chose to publish what amounted to a character assault on Willie. It included opinions as to his guilt in both his cases, given by the Starkville Chief of Police, David Lindley, and the former Sheriff of the Oktibbeha County, Dolf Bryan, despite these men having been key prosecution witnesses at Willie’s trial and therefore not impartial. Willie’s childhood was described only in terms of his contact with the police; there is no evidence of the Columbus Dispatch attempting to interview anyone else about his past, despite the likelihood of obtaining positive or mitigating information (social services case records describe Willie as a well-mannered child who helped take care of his grandmother and helped her get to appointments). The newspaper then gave a lengthy description of the police chase that led to Willie’s arrest for the murders, presumably finding this of greater significance than the defense arguments that it omitted.
As we look back with relief that Willie wasn’t in the end executed one year ago, we should also look to the future. We must recognise the power of the media to influence opinions. And we must be vigilant to expose and condemn any unfair and unbalanced reporting. If Willie is eventually successful in his aim of being granted a new trial, he should not have to face a jury that has been indoctrinated to believe in his guilt.
*This controversy related to Willie’s 1992 case involving the murders of two students.