DNA testing may settle any doubt of guilt

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, August 3, 2013

Willie Manning got most of his wish. The Mississippi death row inmate is going to get the chance to use DNA testing to prove his innocence.

We’ll soon know whether Manning has been locked up unjustly for two decades, as he claims, or whether he is just manipulating every legal avenue he can to delay his date with the execution chamber.

At least, though, we’ll have some certainty — hopefully.

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Last week, the state Supreme Court reversed itself and ordered the DNA testing that Manning’s attorneys and the Mississippi Innocence Project have been seeking. It was the right decision for the justices to make.

The only thing the state loses by doing the testing is a little time and money — small costs when weighed against the possibility, however slim, of taking an innocent person’s life.

In May, Manning was just hours away from receiving a lethal injection for the 1992 murder of two Mississippi State University students when the Supreme Court hit the pause button. …

Manning was convicted using forensic methods that have been replaced by more-scientific ones, particularly DNA analysis that has already proven — in hundreds of cases around the country — that juries sometimes get the verdict wrong, including in capital-murder cases.

The testing may prove to be a wasted exercise. The DNA analysis may wind up being inconclusive, as Attorney General Jim Hood predicts, which would then put the burden of proof against Manning on circumstantial evidence — for which the court record indicates there is plenty. But at least the state would have taken a reasonable step to be sure that it got the guilty party.

Understandably, the protracted appeals in Manning’s case have been hard on the family and friends of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, the MSU students who were cruelly murdered. Some of that delay, though, could have been avoided had the state agreed to the DNA testing before now.

Manning may be guilty of these twin murders and another double-murder for which he has also received a death sentence. But before the state straps him to the gurney, it has a moral obligation to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt.