On recent letters from Willie Jerome Manning the envelopes have carried a message from him: “I can’t breathe”. These, the repeated last words of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man killed in July in a police chokehold, have become a byword for lack of justice for African Americans killed by police. In marking his envelopes thus, Willie highlights the link between police and state killings of African Americans in the USA.
The racism involved in Willie’s case was emphasized by his supporters after his trial and sentencing two decades ago for the murders of two white students. Reporting at the time, The Reflector quoted Dr Douglas Conner, who was then Vice President of Oktibbeha County NAACP:
“Manning was charged four months after the murders of Miller and Steckler and was chosen from a list of 22 black suspects the police believed capable of the crime. No white suspects were on the list. No DNA testing was done on the white skin found under Tiffany Miller’s fingernails, and no physical evidence was brought forth in the case.
(The evidence was) circumstantial, shaky, confusing, unbelievable and poorly rehearsed.”
The Starkville Daily News carried similar quotations from others who witnessed the trial. For instance, Allie Robinson linked the outcome with the racist injustices suffered by African Americans in the past:
“A lynching, that is all this is – a lynching. You’ve been killing us too long. We’ve been in the back woods too long. You killed our grandparents, and now you are killing our children.”
Willie’s call for recognition of the racism that has landed him on death row is echoed by Charles P. Pierce’s article in Esquire about the execution last month of Robert Holsey. Holsey was African American, had intellectual disabilities, and was represented at trial by a racist and alcoholic lawyer, who was too drunk at the trial to communicate his client’s disability. For Pierce there is an obvious connection with other events:
“Anyone who can’t see the political and sociological tissue connecting the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (both African Americans killed recently at police hands), and the revelations of a decade’s worth of CIA brutality, and the execution of Robert Holsey isn’t looking hard enough.”
It is indeed shocking that the justice system failed to prevent Holsey’s execution.
Willie maintains the death sentences in both his cases were the result of flawed and racist policing, ratified by a flawed and racist justice system. Because of both he has spent 20 years under the threat of death, in the harsh conditions of Mississippi’s death row. We can only endorse his heartfelt cry, “I can’t breathe”.