Fox on DNA Forensic Error and the Execution of Innocents

By Dov Fox

Willie Jerome Manning, a 44-year-old black man, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday for the 1992 kidnapping and murder of white college students Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller in Mississippi. No physical evidence has ever linked Manning to the crime. And the Justice Department has just come clean that the forensic science used to prosecute Manning was fundamentally flawed.

A jury convicted Manning almost 20 years ago based on three kinds of circumstantial evidence. First was the testimony of his cousin and a jailhouse informant who claimed that he confessed the crime to them. The cousin had accused two other men before Manning, however, and the informant has since recanted altogether. Second were Steckler’s jacket, ring, and CD player from his car that Manning was arrested for trying to sell. Manning told police from the beginning that he had acquired the stolen property from someone he didn’t know.

Critical to the prosecution’s case was the last piece of evidence against Manning: expert testimony by an FBI agent that African American hair fragments were found in Miller’s car. Not only did DNA and fingerprints found at the crime scene never incriminate Manning himself, however. Two days ago, the Justice Department notified Manning’s lawyer and the County District Attorney that “testimony containing erroneous statements regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis was used in this case.” Federal officials have yet to detail the precise errors involved, but made clear in their letter that the FBI’s forensic evidence was unsound not least because it “exceeded the limits of science” at the time.

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Dov Fox

Dov Fox

Dov Fox is Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Health Law Policy and Bioethics at the University of San Diego School of Law, where he has been named Herzog Endowed Scholar for exceptional scholarship and teaching. He also won BIOCOM's Life Science Catalyst Award for "significant contributions to human health through research, discovery, and entrepreneurship." His work has been featured in CNN, ABC, NPR, NBC, Reuter’s, Bloomberg, Slate, Daily Beast, Today Show, Boston Globe, and Washington Post. His latest book project, "Birth Rights and Wrongs," is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

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