The long awaited Al Jazeera America program (Flawed Forensics, episode 3 of the series, The System), featuring Willie Manning, was broadcast in the USA on Sunday 1 June. The overall focus is the uncovering of systemic flaws in the FBI’s procedures for evaluating forensic evidence, especially hair evidence: FBI agents throughout the USA were all trained centrally to use methods that were scientifically unsound. And although the issues with forensic testimony were revealed to prosecutors over a decade ago, there was no obligation for prosecutors to pass this information on to defense lawyers. Finally a Washington Post investigation revealed the extent of the scandal, and brought about a Department of Justice and FBI review into thousands of cases, to ascertain whether hair testimony provided by FBI agents was flawed and might have led to wrongful convictions.
The impact of flawed hair testimony on individuals is illustrated by two cases, one of which is Willie Manning’s 1992 case involving the murder of two students. Willie’s post-conviction attorney, David Voisin, states that the hair evidence in Willie’s case is significant, being the only physical evidence linking Willie to the victims’ car. He describes how it took three Department of Justice letters stating that hair and ballistics testimony at Willie’s trial was flawed for the Mississippi Supreme Court finally to stay Willie’s scheduled execution on May 7 2013 (and then, eventually, allow him to pursue his request for DNA and fingerprint testing). Voisin cannot understand why the state was opposing legitimate testing that would provide reassurance that every reasonable step had been taken to prevent ‘a catastrophic outcome’, and perhaps identify the real perpetrator.
Joe Berlinger, the director of the series, speaks to Willie himself when Willie phones his brother, Marshon:
JB: When you heard about the FBI sending out letters that there was bad testimony about the forensics in your case and a whole bunch of other cases, how did you react to that?
WM: That was a huge sense of relief, especially because it sheds a light on so many other cases where this has happened. I believe that the State knows that they have an innocent person incarcerated.
JB: If you had to boil it down in a nutshell, what do you want people to know about your case?
WM: We should take a closer look at the system as a whole. My case will bring a lot to light. I don’t believe that there’s any perfect system. But this is not as advertised. This system is broken. You have many, many, many more Willie Mannings out there, who came before me and as long as the system stays the same there’ll be many more coming behind me.
JB: What is your hope for the future? Do you think this is going to work itself out?
WM: One day. I thought it would be a lot sooner. I thought it’d be back in 1997 or so. But when you have innocent people, then you have innocent people for real, and those who are for real can never lose hope.
There is far more in the program than will fit easily into one post: we plan to revisit it at a later stage. But for now we end with Marshon’s words about Willie,
“He never lost focus, he never lost hope. Always kept his faith. I guess that’s what gave me the strength to carry on.”