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Mississippi execution due Tuesday despite FBI claim some testimony 'invalid'

By Emily Lane

JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - A Mississippi inmate is facing execution on Tuesday despite an admission last week by federal authorities that statements made during his 1994 murder trial about a hair sample pushed the limits of science and were 'invalid'.

Willie Jerome Manning, 44, was convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection for the shooting deaths of two Mississippi State University students.

In letters last week to state officials, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Justice said an FBI examiner had overstated conclusions about a hair found in Miller's car by suggesting that it came from an African American.

Manning is black and the two victims, 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.

Manning's lawyers have asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to halt his lethal injection in light of the revelations, and the Mississippi Innocence Project filed a lawsuit to preserve the hair and other evidence for DNA testing even if Manning is executed.

The state Supreme Court refused Manning's earlier requests to delay the execution to allow for DNA testing.

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

"The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that the evidence is so overwhelming as to Manning's guilt," Hood said. "Even if technologies were available to determine the source of the hair, to indicate someone other than Manning, it would not negate other evidence that shows his guilt."

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.

He also was convicted and given death sentences for the murders of Emmoline Jimmerson, 90, and Alberta Jordan, 60, whose throats were slashed during a robbery at their Starkville apartment a month after the two students' deaths. That case remains on appeal.

Manning's lethal injection is set for 6 p.m. local time on Tuesday at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. If carried out, it will be the first execution in Mississippi this year.

Miller's mother, Pamela Cole, said Manning's death would bring her peace but no closure.

"It's just 21 years late," she said. "Not a day goes by that I realize what I would have missed, all because of this one joker that decided he was going to play God one night."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins)

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