Clive Stafford Smith

Justice eludes 'Satan's friend'

on 26 November 2009


Willie Manning begins his 15th year facing execution in Mississippi on 11 December. It is a platitude to suggest that as the Christmas season approaches we should consider those less fortunate than ourselves, but if we did Willie would certainly qualify.

The prosecutor in his case managed to get juries to vote for no fewer than four death sentences on Willie, in two separate trials, just in case executing him once did not do the job. He was convicted of two double homicides, each allegedly committed during separate robberies.

For a decade, Willie sat on death row. At first he studied law, eagerly reading about any decision that might save him. He insisted on his innocence, and new evidence backed his claim, but no court wanted to listen. Gradually, depression weighed him down and he retreated into himself.

Finally, in 2004, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a review of both verdicts. Crucial evidence had been suppressed. The "eyewitness" in one case, who had sworn that he watched from his home across the street as Willie entered the victims' house, had lied: it transpired that the witness's supposed home had been boarded up at the time and he was living across town. It also emerged that, in Willie's second trial, a man who had identified him as the killer (in exchange for favourable treatment by the prosecution) had previously fingered two other men for the same crime.

The day that the Supreme Court overturned the convictions was the happiest day in Willie's life. "It was the end of a nightmare," he told me. "Actually, I cried."

He had been given his life back; the weight of the death penalty had been lifted. Willie's former partner allowed him back into his daughter's life; he had been cut off from her since his conviction, when she had been an infant. "When I read the letter, I was looking at my daughter's photo, and I was feeling truly blessed. This time, I bawled my eyes out."

The prosecution then asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. This is usually a formality, but it can take months. As he waited, Willie tried to piece his life back together. He wrote constantly to his now 15-year-old daughter. He sent her the little money he had saved, so she could take her friends skating for her birthday. By the time he got out of prison, he would be 40, but he would still have a future.

Then, on 9 March 2006, Willie received a large envelope in the mail from the Supreme Court. "I read just the first page. I didn't have to go further," he said. "I bent down like I had been kicked in the stomach." The letter said: "The original opinion is withdrawn and this opinion is substituted therefore . . . the petition for post-conviction relief is denied."

From unanimously ordering relief, the court had swung to the opposite - voting 6-0 to put him back on death row. There was no apparent reason for the change of mind, no dissent from any judge.

A judge sits on his leather chair in his office, ruminating on an opinion. Many miles away, a prisoner waits to hear the verdict on his life. To lose is despair; but nothing compares to the cruelty of victory torn away. Soon after, Willie was on the phone to his daughter wondering how to tell her. Now he had once more been declared "guilty", he would be cut off from her yet again.

The prosecutor who put Willie on death row had always believed that Willie was simply evil. The significance of 6 June 2006 passed me by. Not so the prosecutor. It was the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year: 6-6-6, the devil's number. The prosecutor chose that day for a programme to be shown on a local TV station. It was a tabloid vilification of Willie Manning - the thrust of which was that he was, in effect, Beelzebub, one of Satan's senior lieutenants.

As the programme had been loudly advertised the day before, Willie got to watch from his cell as he was being pilloried. He remains there today. "I've been here more than 4,000 days," he told me. "I don't want to think of anything. I don't want to cry. I just want to lie on my bed."

This article first appeared in New Statesman

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