One Mississippi

The following news story from HuffPost warrants a comment or two:

Convicted double murderer Willie Jerome Manning, who has been on death row for nearly two decades, is set to be executed Tuesday, after being denied a DNA test that could save him from the execution chamber, the New York Times reports.

In a 5-to-4 decision in April, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that there was “conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt” and that DNA tests would not “preclude his participation in the crimes,” according to the Times.

But in a dissenting opinion Justice James W. Kitchens argued that “whatever potential harm the denial seeks to avert is surely outweighed by the benefits of ensuring justice by the scientific analysis of all the trace evidence.”

Dov Fox of the Georgetown University Law Center says that “no physical evidence has ever linked Manning to the crime,” in a Huffpost blog.

Readers of these blogs who have followed closely over the past months (!) know I am opposed to the death penalty. This story simply highlights the reasons. I do realize that there are cases in which the evidence is “overwhelming,” but there are too many cases like those of Willie Manning: people (especially black people) who have been misidentified and linked by a web of circumstantial evidence to a crime he may or may not have committed. It has always seemed to me that the possibility of human error — which is at its highest when people are excited or nervous — trumps whatever evidence has been brought forward. In a word, I have always thought that as a caring people we should err on the side of compassion and even possible error. I would prefer to see a guilty man go free than to see an innocent man die a gruesome death at the hands of an executioner. I cannot get around the notion that much of our desire to execute people is nothing more or less than a remnant of our primitive blood lust — the sort of thing that surfaces in the outcries of angry protesters at the funeral parlor where the remains of the Tamerian Tsarnaev were recently claimed by his uncle who wants to give him a decent burial.

But in Manning’s case the conclusion that the court is simply blind seems obvious even to those of us who may not know all the details. If Dov Fox is right and there is “no physical evidence” linking Manning to the crime of which he was convicted, and, further, if a DNA test could provide convincing evidence one way or the other, then it seems a no-brainer that the test be done and the man be given every opportunity to prove his innocence. The thought of executing a man after two decades on death row on the basis of the decision of a seemingly biased court must disturb the most tranquil of minds. Whether or not a person is opposed to the death penalty on principle, as I am, one must admit that Manning’s case deserves a stay of execution until the DNA test is done. This decision was simply wrong.


16 thoughts on “One Mississippi

  1. That’s … preposterous! Maybe it would show that he was guilty, but maybe it would prove that they were executing the wrong person. The last person to be executed in this country was hanged innocent. The death penalty should not be used. Kill people to set an example that killing people is wrong … huh??!!??

  2. This is outrageous. It seems like the desired decision has already been reached, and any scientific analysis of the situation is being treated as an administrative inconvenience to those with their finger on the button. I signed a petition on this, but it seems too little, too late.

  3. Hugh, i agree with your points 100%. As you recall, the State of GA executed what may have been an innocent man about two months ago. The avoidance of admission of failure is a powerful drug and time and time again, people say the very same things as noted above. And, yet we are OK with killing someone who may be innocent. I keep thinking of John Coffey in the “Green Mile.” Thanks for your post, BTG

  4. At times I wonder why the world associates the people of Mississippi with racism, poor health habits and backward thinking, and then I step back and see this from a distant vantage point, and I sigh. Parchman. The Death Penalty. Mississippi Burning. Before I replied, I did a search and refreshed my memory on this case, as I have lived in Latin America for a dozen years, and Mississippi history becomes blurred.

    I found this, , which appears to be a legal factual summary. After reading the first half! of it, I can understand why those in power are unbending. Yet I still think that one should eliminate all doubt. or at least back it back to life without parole…

    During those times when a death penalty is carried out, and the world is aware of that hour of death, there’s a collective attentiveness of compassion that is imbalanced against those who feel justified by the death penalty. Of course the families of those slain people have somewhat of a closure, but is it a false one? At times, yes, and at times, no. If the person is a true cold-blooded monster, I would sleep better knowing that he/she was no longer a threat, especially if I had been one tormented by his/her actions.

    I think that when that hour of death-penalty is over, our heightened sense of right and wrong reminds us that we don’t agree… There’s a burr poking us, and we’re not sure how to even articulate it. As BTG has branded in my psyche, ‘What are we going to do about this?’

    How does David approach Goliath and wrestle outdated attitudes into the past? Some of us stand up and speak out (thanks, Hugh) while some of us retreat to a quiet bend of a far-away river and remove ourselves from the strife. I respect you for what you’ve done with your life.


  5. There is another force at play in many of these refusals to stay execution orders, and that is the ego, and the fact that some of these courts and their decisions will have been proved wrong. And for men to have been proven wrong for over 20 years, as in this case, is too much to admit.

    As bad as Mississippi is in killing innocents, a look at the Texas record will really make one ill.

    Thanks for bringing this discussion up, Hugh.

  6. Since we have no real way of knowing for sure we can at best just assume our world gets more and more complicated. Clearing the fields, planting the crops and watching out for the savages probably was no simple matter, but it surely does seem many of our contemporary challenges are so profoundly complex as to exhaust the most thoughtful.

    Consider the intractable conundrum of abortion. Is there any of even the most strident advocates of choice are not at some level keenly aware of the cost of their choice, and is it possible for the most energized evangelical defender of the unborn not mindful of the weight on the victim of incest or rape…and whe in the world is that illusive middle ground?

    …but for the life of me I have never been able to understand fully the embrace of capital punishment. The ghastly images it cast over our world, it’s documented unfairness and potential for error, it’s obvious failure to deter violent crime, and perhaps most compellingly it’s total inability to right any scales of justice, to undo any harm, or remove any hurt…causes one to wonder, what good is it?

    Though his response (and his ill-advised tank trip) probably cost him an election, I think Gov. Dukakis was courageous and right in his response to Bernard Shaw…and while I pray I shall never have to be placed in the position of Shaw’s hypothetical, I believe the Governor was spot on, and I hope for the day when our country joins hands with so many other countries of the world in turning our backs to the savagery of capital punishment.

    Then we can be on with the business of kibitzing with each other about more important topics…like the weather!

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