Last-minute stay in Mississippi execution; Texas still on

JACKSON, Mississippi Tue May 7, 2013 6:09pm EDT

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JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - A man facing execution Tuesday night for the 1992 murder of two college students won a last-minute reprieve from the Mississippi Supreme Court after federal authorities said they overstated the strength of hair and gun evidence during trial.

Willie Jerome Manning, 44, was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection. His lawyers asked for a delay after the trial evidence revelation.

The court's order calling for the stay of execution did not give a reason for its 8-1 decision.

"I am very happy and very relieved (about) the stay," said Manning's attorney, David Voisin. "The order demonstrates that the court is taking our pleading seriously."

The Tuesday night execution in Texas of inmate Carroll Parr, who was convicted of killing a man during a 2003 robbery, was still scheduled to proceed. It would be the 11th execution in the United States this year and the fifth in Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In the Mississippi case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Justice said in three letters this month to state officials that FBI examiners erred in their testimony about hair and ballistics evidence.

One expert overstated conclusions about a hair found in Miller's car by suggesting that it came from an African American, federal authorities said last week.

Manning is black and the two victims, Mississippi State University students Tiffany Miller, 22, and Jon Steckler, 19, were white. The hair sample was the only physical evidence linking Manning to the crime scene.

"We have determined that the microscopic hair comparison analysis testimony or laboratory report presented in this case included statements that exceeded the limits of science and was, therefore, invalid," federal authorities said.

In an additional letter this week, they said a firearms examiner testified that bullets retrieved from the victims' bodies and a tree outside Manning's house came from the same gun, when in fact such a conclusion could not be made with absolute certainty.

Manning's lawyers had asked the state Supreme Court to halt his lethal injection in light of the initial revelations.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood accused Manning of waiting until the last minute to raise "this frivolous issue."

According to prosecutors, Manning crossed paths with Miller and Steckler when the couple unwittingly interrupted him burglarizing a car outside a fraternity house they were leaving in December 1992. Manning had a history of theft and other charges and had recently been paroled, prosecutors said.

Manning forced the couple into Miller's car, robbed them and shot them, prosecutors said. Their bodies were discovered on a rural road near the university campus in Starkville.

Manning was arrested after he tried to sell some items belonging to the victims.

In the Texas case, Parr was convicted of the 2003 murder of Joel Dominguez in Waco.

Parr, now 35, bought marijuana from Dominguez at a convenience store and then returned to the store with a friend to get his money back, according to an account of the case from the Texas attorney general's office. Parr and his friend, who were armed, forced Dominguez and another man to a fenced area near the store.

Parr pistol-whipped Dominguez, got his money back from him, then told his friend to "smoke 'em," the account said. Parr fatally shot Dominguez in the head, and Parr's friend shot the other man in the hand.

Parr already had a criminal record that included convictions for delivery of cocaine and evading arrest, and prosecutors presented evidence that he was involved in another murder in 2001.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January denied a request for Parr's case to be reviewed.

(Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan in Austin, Texas; Editing by Scott Malone, Richard Chang, Colleen Jenkins, Jim Marshall and Andrew Hay)

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