Mississippi Supreme Court reverses DNA ruling in murder case

JACKSON, Mississippi Thu Jul 25, 2013 9:11pm EDT

Willie Jerome Manning is pictured in this undated Mississippi Department of Corrections handout photo. REUTERS/Mississippi Department of Corrections/Handout via Reuters

Willie Jerome Manning is pictured in this undated Mississippi Department of Corrections handout photo.

Credit: Reuters/Mississippi Department of Corrections/Handout via Reuters

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JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - The Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning can ask a lower court judge to allow DNA and fingerprint testing in a bid to overturn his conviction for murdering two college students.

The ruling came more than two months after the same court stopped Manning's execution on May 7, hours before it was scheduled to take place.

The order, dated Tuesday, also reverses an earlier decision in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against Manning's request for DNA testing.

His case is one of as many as 27 death penalty cases included in a unprecedented review by the U.S. Justice Department of old criminal cases in which convictions may have been influenced by erroneous forensic evidence.

In their request for DNA testing, Manning's attorneys said technological advancements since his trial could lead to proof through DNA evidence that he is innocent of killing two Mississippi State University students in 1992.

Manning has 60 days as of July 23 to ask Judge Lee J. Howard to grant DNA and fingerprint testing in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court.

Mississippi Innocence Project Director Tucker Carrington, whose organization aided in Manning's appeals, said he was relieved the Mississippi Supreme Court stopped short of denying post-conviction DNA testing for a death row inmate.

"I feel like Mississippi stepped back from the precipice, regardless of the results ... by allowing the testing and avoiding becoming one of a few if not the first state ever to ignore ... the probative value of post-conviction DNA evidence," Carrington said.

The bodies of Jon Steckler, 19, and Tiffany Miller, 22, were found in rural Oktibbeha County. Manning was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to death.

(Reporting by Emily Lane; Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech)

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