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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About Dov Fox

Dov Fox is Professor of Law and founding Faculty Director of the Center for Health Law Policy and Bioethics at the University of San Diego School of Law. He has published dozens of articles in leading journals of law and medical ethics, most recently “Reproductive Negligence” in 117 Columbia Law Review 149 (2017). His current book project, Birth Rights and Wrongs, is under contract with Oxford University Press. His work has been featured in CNN, ABC, NPR, BBC, Reuter’s, Bloomberg, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. Fox is a regular columnist for The Huffington Post and contributor to the Bill of Health blog. He also serves on the advisory boards of the American Constitution Society and Appellate Defenders, the non-profit law firm that administers all appointed counsel for indigent defendants in California's Fourth Appellate District. Prior to teaching, Fox served as a law clerk to the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He has also worked at the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company; and the Civil Appellate Staff at the U.S. Department of Justice. Fox was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University, where he earned his DPhil and then received a Soros Fellowship for New Americans to attend Yale Law School, where he served as projects editor for the Yale Law Journal and all three years was awarded the prize for best student paper in law and the sciences.