The Suffering of Parchman’s Death Row

18 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons since December 29, some as a result of violence. 10 of the deaths were at the state penitentiary at Parchman, where Willie Manning is incarcerated. State law requires death row to remain at Parchman.

Death row prisoners like Willie were not involved in any violence, but nonetheless their conditions worsened as the Mississippi Department of Corrections struggled to regain control during the disorder: death row was locked down along with the rest of the prison.

According to death row attorneys, meals were not delivered at mealtimes, and when food was eventually brought it was “cold and sparse: a single bologna sandwich, a half foam plastic cup of Cheerios and milk”. Medication and water bottles were not being delivered. Showering was not allowed, and there were problems with the toilets after a storm shut off electricity.  

Death row is in Unit 29. Following a visit to Parchman, incoming Governor Tate Reed ordered parts of this unit to close; but the governor suggested that the condition of death row is acceptable and should remain in use.

However, last year the then Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner, Pelicia Hall, appeared to contradict this when she wrote to lawmakers:
“[Unit 29], originally constructed in 1980 and renovated in 1996, has become unsafe for staff and inmates due to age and general deterioration.”

With Governor Reed describing himself as a “budget hawk”, it seems unlikely that conditions for death row will improve. We wish Willie the strength to survive.

Posted in African American, Death Row, Mississippi, prison conditions, USA, Willie Manning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Shocking Deaths

There has been shock and horror in Mississippi and beyond at the deaths of five Mississippi prison inmates in less than a week. Three of the deaths were at the state penitentiary at Parchman, the prison where Willie Manning is held. The three young men who died were:
January 1: Walter Gates, 25, who died in a riot
January 2: Roosevelt Holliman, 32, stabbed in a gang-related riot
January 3: Denorris Howell, 36, killed during a fight with his cellmate
Other men were injured.

Death row, where Willie Manning is imprisoned, has not been directly affected by the violence; but inmates have been on lockdown and must be aware of the tension, and of the additional patrols in place.

Despite continuing safety and health problems at Parchman, its funding has been reduced. And at the end of 2019 the number of correctional officers employed by the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) was fewer than half of those employed five years earlier.

Prisoner advocates, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have asked the federal government to investigate Mississippi’s prison system regarding possible civil rights violations. They assert:
“Mississippi has acknowledged the danger presented by severe understaffing and horrific conditions, but has repeatedly failed to take appropriate action.”

The “absolutely inhumane and unconstitutional” conditions have also drawn the attention of the rapper Jay-Z and hip-hop artist Yo Gotti: they have threatened to sue Mississippi unless conditions are improved. Their letter to Governor, Phil Bryant, and the MDOC Commisioner, Pelicia Hall, describes inmates who “are forced to live in squalor, with rats that crawl over them as they sleep on the floor, having been denied even a mattress for a cot.”

A lawyer for Jay-Z and Yo Gotti’s company commented:
“I just think it’s troubling where you have people, predominantly African American, who are locked inside cages where they don’t have a voice to be heard and are essentially the forgotten. It strikes us that there has to be a spotlight on this, otherwise we might not even be scratching the surface of the horror going on inside these prisons.”

Let us hope that legal action will at last secure proper funding to end the disgraceful neglect of Mississippi’s prisoners.

Posted in Mississippi, Mississippi State Penitentiary Parchman, prison conditions, USA, Willie Manning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Grounds for Optimism

2019 is drawing to a close on an optimistic note! Willie Manning’s fellow death row inmate, Curtis Flowers, has finally been granted freedom (on bail) after being subjected to six trials during nearly two decades. The improper prosecutor strikes for black jurors in Flowers’  case were highlighted by the US Supreme Court:
“Equal justice under law requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process.”
We hope courts sustain this view when reviewing Willie’s remaining case.

We also now know that 2019 has seen progress on the DNA testing of hairs from Willie’s case. It seems that two batches of hair evidence have been tested this year: a batch described as “additional hairs” were tested in the spring; and “two hair fragments” were due to be tested between June and October.

The results of this testing are yet to be disclosed, but it is reassuring to know that Willie’s case is no longer at a standstill.

We trust that Willie sees these events as grounds for optimism for his case. And we wish him and his family a peaceful holiday season.

Posted in capital punishment, criminal justice, Curtis Flowers, death penalty, Mississippi, racism, USA, Willie Manning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Twenty-Five Years on Death Row

Today, November 10, 2019, marks 25 years since Willie Manning first entered death row. A jury had found him guilty of murdering Tiffany Miller and Jon Steckler, despite no physical evidence linking him to the murders.

Two years later Willie was found guilty of a second double murder in a case brought by the same prosecutor, Forrest Allgood. This case collapsed in 2015 when the crucial state witness recanted; the Mississippi Supreme Court found that the prosecution had suppressed evidence favorable to Willie.

Willie’s original case keeps him on death row more than 6 years after the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed to allow DNA testing of biological evidence from the murder scene and analysis of fingerprints found in the car belonging to one of the victims. It is unclear why this testing is taking so long.

Please keep Willie Manning in your thoughts on the sad anniversary of his arrival on death row 25 years ago.

Posted in criminal justice, death penalty, Death Row, DNA testing, Mississippi, USA, Willie Manning, wrongful convictions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Racially Charged Injustice

Like Willie Manning, Rodney Reed is on death row in the south of the USA, with a case that is racially charged: Reed, who is black, was found guilty by an all-white jury of murdering a white woman in Texas in 1996.

As in Willie’s case, forensic testimony given at Reed’s trial was inaccurate. As in Willie’s case, Reed’s case is full of further anomalies; moreover, there is credible evidence that the murder was actually committed by the victim’s fiancé, a white police officer with a history of sexual assault, dishonesty and violence.

Just as Willie was scheduled for execution in 2013 with DNA from his case untested, so Reed now faces execution on November 20 with his request for DNA testing refused by the courts.

Attorneys for Reed have asked Texas Governor Greg Abbott for a 30-day reprieve from execution, citing new evidence and “grave doubt concerning his guilt.”

We urge you to support Rodney Reed by signing the Innocence Project’s petition and the Change.org petition.

Many thanks!

Update Great news! Following a huge campaign on behalf of Rodney Reed, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has issued an indefinite stay of execution for Reed, and has remanded his case to the trial court for ‘further development’ of three of his four claims.

Following the decision, Reed’s brother, Rodrick Reed, spoke out against the US death penalty’s systemic injustice:

“There’s … other Rodney Reeds out there that’s going through similar situations. We have to, as a people, stand up and say enough is enough.”

We agree.

Posted in capital punishment, criminal justice, death penalty, racism, Rodney Reed, Texas, USA, Willie Manning, wrongful convictions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Trail of Hidden Victims

A former commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections has spoken out against the terrible impact of capital punishment on prison staff. Allen L. Ault was responding to this summer’s announcement that the federal death penalty will be resumed after a gap of 16 years.

He is clear that the 5 federal executions scheduled will leave behind “a fresh trail of victims, largely hidden from public view”. He is referring to the correctional staff involved.

Ault speaks from death penalty experience in several states when he claims that post-traumatic stress is even worse for correctional staff than it is for battlefield veterans.  This, he believes, is because during executions the person to be killed is “a known human being who is totally defenseless when brought into the death chamber” and “poses no threat to them personally”.

Ault maintains that the “feelings of guilt, shame and mental torment” extend beyond the execution team to other prison staff. Correctional staff often form meaningful relationships over many years with inmates, supporting them as they mature and develop remorse; inevitably those staff are affected when an inmate is then killed. Ault adds that the damage spreads still further, causing “depression, anxiety and other mental and physical impacts” even in staff working in other parts of the prison.

How much greater must this trauma be where the person to be executed has a strong claim of innocence, as Willie Manning has.

No civilized society should inflict this trauma on its citizens. If for no other reason, the death penalty should end.

Posted in capital punishment, correctional staff, criminal justice, death penalty, executions, USA, Willie Manning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sickness and Deaths

Willie Manning’s prison, Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, is inspected annually; failures in safety and health obligations are then uncovered. Several times previously we have noted the problems at the prison.* This year is no different: an inspection in June exposed very many environmental sanitation and health deficiencies across the prison e.g.
flooding and leaks,
lack of lights, power and water,
broken toilets and sinks
missing pillows and mattresses
black mold and mildew
exposed wiring
raw sewage
inoperable showers and ice machines

Unit 29, where Willie is incarcerated, has the most violations. This unit has 1500 beds, of which 41 are allocated to death row inmates.

Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, states that “long-term exposure to unhealthy and dangerous conditions”, together with staff shortages, are implicated in sickness and deaths among prisoners.

Attorney Ron Welch, who has represented state prisoners against Mississippi, notes that skimping on maintenance is a false economy for taxpayers: unmaintained buildings do not last as long as well-maintained ones.

However, instead of investing more for the sake of safety, health and sound economics, Mississippi lawmakers have recently approved a reduction in Parchman’s budget for next year (2.6% less than the prison was allocated this year).

Far from improving, it seems likely that conditions at Parchman will continue to deteriorate. We wish Willie the strength to survive.

*See here and here and here.

Posted in Mississippi, Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, prison conditions, USA, Willie Manning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Racially Motivated Manipulation

Curtis Flowers is an African American man incarcerated alongside Willie Manning on Mississippi’s death row. The way the legal system has operated in Flowers’ case has been described as “nothing more than one human being tormenting another because he can.”

Flowers’ highly questionable conviction is for the 1997 murder of four people in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi; he has always maintained his innocence. Law enforcement officers concealed evidence that pointed to another suspect. They used dubious jailhouse snitches to build a case against Flowers; these witnesses have since recanted. A possible murder weapon was found and sent to the prosecutor’s office for testing; it disappeared.

Incredibly, Flowers has suffered the ordeal of going through six trials for this crime, all brought by the same prosecutor, Doug Evans. The convictions from Flowers’ first three trials were all nullified on appeal because of prosecutor misconduct. The fourth and fifth trials produced no verdict: the jury could not agree. The sixth trial resulted in a conviction that was ultimately challenged in the US Supreme Court and overturned last month on the grounds that
‘the prosecutor showed a “relentless, determined” effort to rid the jury of black members and try Flowers “ideally before an all-white jury.”’

Studies confirm that such unfair jury manipulation is commonplace in the USA: black jurors are struck by prosecutors at a rate that is two, three or four times the rate for white jurors. Willie has a similar claim of improper prosecutor strikes for black jurors.

Diversity in juries is important not just for reasons of legitimacy. People are better able to interpret the behavior of others if they come from a similar background; thus black jurors are better equipped to decide whether black defendants are guilty. Personal experience is also likely to make African Americans more skeptical than white people about police, prosecutors and the criminal justice system in general: this would help them to recognize the flaws in a case such as Flowers’, or, indeed, Willie’s.

Mississippi can now decide whether to inflict a seventh trial on Flowers: we hope it does not. We also hope Mississippi Supreme Court judges will be less quick to dismiss other inmates’ claims that prosecutors improperly struck black jurors. In Willie’s case four of the nine judges — close to a majority — decided that:
“…when viewed as a whole, a clear pattern suggesting pretextual reasons by the prosecution in the use of peremptory strikes appears”.
If the court reviews Willie’s claim again, we trust the majority will agree.  

Posted in capital punishment, criminal justice, Curtis Flowers, death penalty, jurors, prosecutor misconduct, USA, Willie Manning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Happy 51st birthday!

Today, Wednesday June 12, 2019, is Willie Manning’s 51st birthday. We wish him a very happy birthday.

On the surface not much has changed for Willie over the last year, but there are signs that the Mississippi Supreme Court is being more rigorous in monitoring the progress of the DNA testing for his case. The completion date for DNA testing of additional hairs was June 5; the very next day the court asked for a status update.

This is good news for Willie, who has had to endure long periods of waiting, without discernible breakthroughs.

We hope that by his next birthday Willie will have something more tangible to celebrate!

Posted in DNA testing, miscarriages of justice, Mississippi, USA, Willie Manning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The US Supreme Court’s Exceptional Barbarity

While we were celebrating the resumption of DNA testing for Willie Manning, the US Supreme Court was shunting the American death penalty into new, shocking levels of brutality. The opinion is described by various legal analysts as “bloodthirsty and cruel”, “excruciatingly cruel” and “astonishing for its harshness and cruelty”.

The court’s decision will allow Missouri to execute Russell Bucklew, a man with a rare medical condition, who will probably suffocate in his own blood when administered lethal drugs.

Astonishingly, the court rejects Bucklew’s proposed alternative – death by nitrogen hypoxia, a method allowed by Missouri – because he supplies no detailed specifications for the administration of the gas. As Garrett Epps ponders:
“[I]t is the state that wants to kill Bucklew, and gas is the state’s designated alternative. Is it really so unreasonable to ask the state to take some responsibility for making it work?”

Matt Ford sees the decision as part of a new pattern since the court’s recent shift to the political right: it is now “incredibly difficult for prisoners to challenge the method by which they die.”

But it goes even beyond this: by deftly and cunningly casting aside decades of Eighth Amendment legal precedent, the decision endangers the prohibition on executing juveniles, people with intellectual disability and even people who committed nonhomicidal crimes. As Matt Ford concludes:
“The Eighth Amendment now seems to say whatever the court’s conservative majority think it says—any interpretation will do, as long as it keeps execution chambers running.”

The trend is chilling.

Posted in Bucklew v. Precythe, capital punishment, criminal justice, death penalty unconstitutionality, executions, US Supreme Court, USA, Willie Manning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,