Execution Protocols: without Guidance or Restrictions

Today it is exactly ten years since Willie Manning came very close to being executed. Five years ago we remembered that day through a series of quotations; those words still have the power to invoke the emotions that we felt on May 7, 2013.

After Willie’s brush with death, executions in Mississippi were paused to allow litigation about the state’s lethal injection protocol to proceed. Sadly, that pause has now ended: there have been two executions within the last 18 months. David Cox was killed in November, 2021, and Thomas Loden in December, 2022. Both executions relied on lethal injections of midazolam (which is controversial because it is a sedative rather than an anesthetic); vecuronium bromide, a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

Loden was one of several inmates challenging the state’s use of midazolam and another drug, compounded pentobarbital, in its lethal injection protocol. However, last year Mississippi gave to its Department of Corrections Commissioner and two deputy commissioners unprecedented authority to choose an execution method from: lethal injection, gas chamber, electrocution or firing squad. In allowing Loden’s execution, District Court Judge Wingate pointed out that Mississippi would otherwise simply have chosen another of its now-permitted execution methods.

Willie may have escaped execution ten years ago, but in the mean time Mississippi has increasingly abandoned any pretence of transparency or decency. It does not disclose how it procures its drugs for executions; it no longer requires an anesthetic to be used as part of a lethal injection protocol; and it does not specify how Department of Corrections’ officials should decide what execution method to select. As Ngozi Ndulue, deputy director of the Death Penalty Information Center comments,
“This statute throws it all into the hands of the Mississippi Department of Corrections without guidance and restrictions.”

Fortunately, on death row conditions have recently improved. Willie can go outside more, where watching the birds gives him pleasure. We trust he can focus on this, and leave others to fight the disgrace that is the Mississippi death penalty.

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Thirty Years On

Today, December 11, 2022, marks 30 years since the savage murders of two Mississippi State University students in Starkville, Mississippi. Willie Manning remembers feeling shocked and saddened when he found out about those murders from the television news later that day.

As time went on, Willie became aware that two suspects had been targeted, and then dropped by the police. When the police turned their attention to him, Willie assumed they would quickly lose interest in him, too, once they realized he had nothing to do with the murders. After all, he knew that no physical evidence linked him to the crime, and witnesses could confirm that he was at the 2500 Club on the other side of town when the students were seen leaving the fraternity house for the last time.

But despite the absence of evidence, Willie Manning was dismayed to find himself being convicted and sentenced to death for each murder. In 2014, filmmaker Joe Berlinger commented on this discrepancy: “Trials are often not about seeking the truth, but about who presents the best narrative.”

With the DNA testing phase now concluded for Willie, it is time to reflect again on the crime that took two young lives 30 years ago. Were any clues overlooked at that time? Were any more potential witnesses omitted from police questioning? Is there anything else that could add to Willie’s understanding of what happened to Tiffany Miller and Jon Steckler that night? if you do have information. please contact the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel, Mississippi.

This week will be very challenging for everyone on Mississippi’s death row: an execution is planned for Wednesday. We hope that Willie can focus on the support that he has from his attorneys, family and friends. And we wish him a peaceful holiday season.

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A  Disappointing Ruling

The Mississippi Supreme Court has denied Willie Manning the opportunity to pursue appropriate DNA testing of hairs found in Tiffany Miller’s car.[i]

Willie had asked for specialist testing after screening at Bode Technology lab failed to produce usable data from the hairs.[ii] Bode lab advised that a different, specialist lab might well locate mitochondrial DNA within these old, fragmented samples; Bode recommended MitoTyping Technologies for the purpose. The court rejected the likelihood of additional results being obtained by the specialist lab.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruling upholds a previous circuit court decision[iii] that included the strange announcement that the hairs from Miller’s car were irrelevant to the outcome of Willie’s case – despite the hairs having been admitted as state evidence at his trial. (As Mississippi Supreme Court Justice King states in his dissent, “some of the hair samples were directly used to convict Manning”.)

The state Supreme Court also dismisses Willie’s assertion that DNA evidence might lead to the identification of a perpetrator; but Justice King disagrees (“DNA testing could potentially lead to the true perpetrator of the crime”).

Justice King also suggests that the additional 3-4 months required for specialist DNA testing is trivial compared with the almost 20 years that elapsed before the court granted Willie his request to test the evidence.

This court ruling is limited to hairs found in Miller’s car; the court notes that other evidence was tested for DNA, and that some DNA data was found. Separately, fingerprints from John Wise’s car were examined by forensic specialist Ron Smith, but no matches were found in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System or Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System databases.

Willie and his attorneys are now conferring about future options. We wish them well.

[i] Decision affirming circuit court’s decision, Supreme Court of Mississippi, June 30, 2022. (Justice Kitchens joins Justice King in his dissent, which starts on page 43.)

[ii] Brief of Appellant, filed in the Supreme Court of Mississippi, April 19, 2021.

[iii] Order, Circuit Court of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi in Vacation 2020. April 28, 2020.

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Hope for the Future

Today, June 12, 2022 is Willie Manning’s 54th birthday. We wish him a very happy birthday.

Willie is upbeat at the moment. He is optimistic about how his remaining case is going, as the DNA testing that he was granted 9 years ago finally draws to a close.

Things have also improved somewhat at the prison where he is incarcerated, Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. It is now less difficult for death row inmates to see a doctor when they are sick.

However, improvements to the prison are still needed, as the Justice Department recently concluded. Its report, published in April, found that “unsanitary living conditions and major staffing shortages at Parchman” contributed to a spate of violence and suicides 2 years ago in Unit 29, where death row is housed. The rapper Yo Gotti, who was instrumental in bringing the lawsuit that led to the federal investigation, surely speaks for us all:
“My heart goes out to the incarcerated men who have suffered without access to clean water, food and healthcare and the families that tragically lost loved ones in the process.”

Despite the harshness of this environment, Willie remains hopeful; and hope allows survival. We are very glad of that.

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Powerless to Help

A few cells away from Willie Manning sits David Cox, who is scheduled to be killed on November 17.

At Cox’s trial his lawyers failed to adequately communicate to the jury the impact of the extensive abuse that he suffered as a child: as well as poverty and neglect, he experienced parental abandonment and chronic exposure to pornography, and he witnessed his father sexually abusing his sister. Unsurprisingly, he turned to addictive substances, including methamphetamine, which damaged his brain. The consequence, according to a forensic psychologist, is that Cox’s rage, violence and impulse control problems are driven by brain dysfunction, and not by choice or character.

The harsh environment of Mississippi’s death row has been far from ideal for treating Cox’s mental disorder.

Cox states that he no longer wants assistance from his lawyers; they believe he is not mentally competent to make this judgment. A judge will soon decide if they can continue to appeal.

There have been no executions in Mississippi since Willie experienced the trauma of coming perilously close to execution in 2013. Inevitably, the looming execution date will bring back memories of that terrible time: the next few weeks will be far harder even than usual for him.

This period will also be traumatic for Cox’s lawyers, and for staff at the prison. It could even impact Cox’s jurors. It will do nothing to make the public safer.

The scheduling of Cox’s killing comes despite an ongoing lawsuit about Mississippi’s lethal injection protocol, and lack of transparency about the origins of the drugs that Mississippi has procured.

For Willie, Cox* is a living, breathing man that he sees every day; Willie is powerless to help him. That is very difficult to live with. Please think of them both.

*You can sign a petition on behalf of David Cox here.

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The Circuit Court Abused its Discretion

Today, Saturday, June 12 is Willie Manning’s 53rd birthday: we wish him a happy birthday. We trust that recent developments in his case help him to spend the day peacefully: his arguments for further DNA testing are strong.

In April, Willie filed a brief for the Mississippi Supreme Court, appealing the decision of the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court to deny additional forensic testing of seven hair fragments vacuumed from Tiffany Miller’s car.*

The Bode Technology lab, where the previous tests were conducted, recommended transferring the fragments to the MitoTyping Technologies lab for additional testing, because the latter has much greater success than Bode at extracting mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from old, degraded samples. Willie explains that the transfer of the fragments to MitoTyping thus meets the legal requirement for “a reasonable likelihood of more probative results” [Miss Code Ann § 99-39-5 (1) (f)].

Willie also highlights the Circuit Court’s statement, “The vacuum sweeping could have come from any source from the time the car was manufactured until the time the samples were obtained”, and testing it is “irrelevant to the issue of guilt”. As Willie notes:
“If the Circuit Court is correct in opining that the hairs are irrelevant, then it was error to admit them and the expert’s testimony [into the trial], in which case there is an additional reason to grant Manning a new trial”.

As the hairs were admitted into Willie’s trial and were used against him, further mtDNA testing should be granted. As Willie concludes,
“[T]he Circuit Court clearly erred and abused its discretion in refusing to allow the additional testing of seven hairs by MitoTyping Technologies”.

We trust the Mississippi Supreme Court will agree. We wish Willie the strength and patience to await its decision.

*The State of Mississippi Judiciary website has been undergoing planned scheduled maintenance for several months, so Willie’s filing is not yet visible there. We will provide a link to it when this becomes available.

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February Hope

February has brought unusually severe winter storms to Mississippi, with snow, freezing temperatures and power failures. Conditions on death row at Mississippi State Penitentiary have been harsh: both power and heating have been off. After a couple of freezing cold days, the malfunctioning boiler has been mended; inmates are warm again, but still without power.

In these conditions it is harder than ever for Willie Manning to stay positive. His remaining case has been moving very slowly: in April Oktibbeha County Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard denied Willie the opportunity to send some of the hair samples from his case to a different lab that specializes in extracting DNA from small degraded samples. 

Fortunately, Willie’s attorneys are now preparing to appeal this decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The brief will probably be filed in the next few weeks.

We are optimistic that the Mississippi Supreme Court will uphold Willie’s request for further testing. In the cold of February, this appeal should give him hope. We trust it does.

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2020: an Eventful Year

2020 has been an eventful year for Willie Manning. His case suffered a setback in April, when Judge Lee Howard denied permission for hair fragments from Tiffany Miller’s car to undergo further DNA testing.

Willie now has more waiting ahead of him while the judge’s ruling is appealed.

On the other hand, Willie was very much encouraged by rulings in favour of two other long term Mississippi death row inmates, both also African Americans. Eddie Lee Howard had his capital murder conviction and death sentence overturned in August; and Curtis Flowers was exonerated in September.

Beyond these legal developments were various other events that impinged on Willie’s life: appalling conditions and deaths at his prison; the highs and lows of the Black Lives Matter movement; and anxiety about Covid-19.

As 2020 ends, we wish Willie a peaceful Christmas and New Year.

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2020 US Election

The death penalty is not mentioned in the President Trump’s vague bullet points that replace the usual platform for the Republican Party in an election year. However, the restoration of federal executions this year confirms the party’s support for capital punishment.

The lethal injections that have so far killed seven federal inmates use secretly acquired drugs, which are not approved for use in executions. Victims’ families have been sidelined, leading sometimes to their retraumatization; defense teams have been kept insufficiently informed; a Native American prohibition against the death penalty was ignored; and the preparation for a federal execution has led to a prison outbreak of Covid-19.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party is clear in its abolitionist stance:  “Democrats continue to support abolishing the death penalty.” This position was originally adopted in 2016:
“We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It has no place in the United States of America. The application of the death penalty is arbitrary and unjust. The cost to taxpayers far exceeds those of life imprisonment. It does not deter crime. And, exonerations show a dangerous lack of reliability for what is an irreversible punishment.”

If you oppose the death penalty, as Willie Manning has every reason to, it is clear which way you should vote.*

*The Libertarian Party and Green Party also oppose the death penalty; the Republican Party and Constitution Party support it.

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Death Row Highs and Lows

Jacob Blake, an African American man, was shot in the back and seriously injured by police in Wisconsin in front of three of his young sons last month. Sadly, news like this is not infrequent, and is always depressing for Willie Manning. Willie is in full agreement with Blake’s lawyer, Ben Crump, who declares,
“There are two justice systems in America – one for black Americans and one for white Americans, and we’re fighting for equal justice for all Americans… We have to have our leaders lead on this.”

From his own cases, Willie has good reason to believe that the two justice systems include the death penalty that has overshadowed his own life.

Fortunately, to help offset the depressing news from Wisconsin, there has been encouraging news from Mississippi’s own death row: Willie’s fellow inmate, Eddie Lee Howard, has been granted a new trial (bite mark evidence that was central in convicting him has since been discredited).

Howard entered death row shortly before Willie, and was prosecuted by the same District Attorney as Willie, the notorious Forrest Allgood. As Allgood was voted out of office in 2015, it will be his reformist successor, Scott Colom, who must now decide whether to drop the charges against Howard, given the new evidence and court findings, or whether to seek a new trial. 

Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project echoes Willie’s feelings as the decision is awaited:
“It’s now time to bring this case to an end, and to close another door on a disastrous era of injustice in this state”. 

We agree.

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