When Willie Manning was first indicted for the murders of two students, he was charged with kidnaping as well; the prosecutors later abandoned the kidnaping charge and substituted robbery. Both kidnaping and robbery allowed them to seek the death penalty for the murders.
The robbery in this case involved items missing from an unlocked car belonging to John Wise, who, like the victims, was a student at Mississippi State University in Starkville. However, the sheriff admitted that there was absolutely no evidence to support the state’s theory that the victims walked up to the car when it was being burglarized. Fingerprint lifts were taken from it during the investigation; they were not analysed. And though Willie was charged with the burglary, no physical evidence linked him to the car.
The following table shows the sequence of events relevant to Wise’s car for the night of the murders, December 10 – 11, 1992, as recalled by Wise in his testimony. (Other events of that night are included in red; all times are approximate.)
|6.30 p.m.||Wise parked his car outside his fraternity house.|
|11:00 p.m.||Wise’s roommate borrowed Wise’s car keys, in order to retrieve a liter of Coke from the car.|
|1 a.m.||The two victims left the fraternity house.|
|1:30 a.m.||Wise went out to his car to get a cupcake that he had purchased earlier. He noticed that the door to the passenger side of the car was unlocked. “He did not notice anything amiss then, save for the doors [sic] being unlocked. There were no marks on the car at that time.” He retrieved the cupcake quickly and locked the door.|
|2.15 a.m.||Jon Steckler was found, dreadfully wounded; he died soon afterwards. Tiffany Miller’s body, which was still warm despite the cold night, was discovered soon after Steckler was found.|
|8–9 a.m.||Wise again went out to his car. This time he saw that it had been burglarized. “He noticed many things missing, and damage to the car.” However, there was no sign that anyone had forced an entry into the vehicle.|
The state’s theory assumed that the car had been unlocked when Willie approached it:
“[W]e just assumed that he [Willie] opened the door and got the stuff out of the car rather than burglarizing it. Since the door was unlocked, there was no need to break into it.”
Presumably the prosecutors also assumed that the “many things” had already been removed from the car before 1.30, while the car was unlocked, and that Wise simply failed to notice their absence. It is unclear why there were “no marks on the car” at 1.30 a.m., but “damage to the car” at 8–9 a.m.
What is clear is that Wise’s car played so significant a role in the prosecution’s theory that thorough forensic analysis should have been undertaken at the time, to amass as much evidence as possible. Sadly, Willie had to wait until June, 2015 for a court finally to order that fingerprint lifts taken from the car, and other fingerprint lifts connected with Willie’s case, should be compared with those on searchable databases.
We trust that the forensics will be completed soon. Willie has waited far too long for justice. We wish him well.