PARCHMAN, Mississippi — The Mississippi Supreme Court indefinitely delayed Tuesday evening's planned execution of Willie Jerome Manning, who was condemned to die for the 1992 shooting deaths of two college students.
Manning was originally scheduled to receive a lethal injection at 6 p.m. CDT at the state prison in Parchman. But as that hour loomed, the high court said the execution should be delayed until it rules further on the case.
The bodies of Mississippi State University students Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller were found in rural Oktibbeha County in December 1992. Manning was convicted in 1994. Prosecutors said Manning was arrested after he tried to sell some items belonging to the victims.
The U.S. Justice Department has said in recent days that there were errors in FBI agents' testimony about ballistics tests and hair analysis in the case.
The FBI offered to conduct DNA testing.
Manning's lawyers said in filings with the Mississippi Supreme Court that the execution should be blocked based on the Justice Department's disclosures and until further testing could be done.
The Mississippi attorney general's office rebutted that testing wouldn't exonerate Manning because the evidence is so overwhelming.
The court ruled 8-1 Tuesday to stop the execution until it rules further on the matter. It did not comment on the merits of the arguments. The court had previously split 5-4 in decisions in the case.
The dissenting judge Tuesday, Justice Mike Randolph, said Manning provided nothing to support his claims involving DNA testing. Randolph said Manning had raised the same issues in previous appeals that were rejected by state and federal courts.
"This issue has been fully litigated. Only after exhaustion of all appeals, federal and state, has this series of 11th hour applications been made," Randolph wrote.
An FBI letter, sent late Monday, said there was incorrect testimony related to tests on bullets in the case.
Manning's girlfriend testified that days before the slayings, Manning had been firing a handgun at a tree behind their house, according to court records. An FBI expert had testified that bullets from the tree matched those recovered from the crime scene.
That kind of examination "is not based on absolute certainty but rather a reasonable degree of scientific certainty," the letter said.
Last week, the FBI said in a letter to state officials and others that its microscopic analysis of evidence, particularly of hair samples found in the car of one of the victims, contained erroneous statements.
Attorney General Jim Hood said Tuesday in a statement that senior attorneys in his office believe the stay will be lifted after the court has been able to review a flurry of recent filings.
Hood said FBI experts and others used more conclusive language in testimony up until National Academy of Science issued a report on forensics in 2009.
"Since then the policy of many experts has been to qualify their testimony by using the magic words 'to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,'" Hood said. "The FBI agents in this case were simply following the standards used in their fields at the time."
But Randolph said there were discrepancies in one of the Justice Department's letters, which said mitochondrial DNA testing became routine in 2000. Randolph said an article published by the DOJ in 1999 said the testing became routine in 1992, and would have been available for Manning's 1994 trial, if he had asked that it be done.
The agency's controversial "Fast and Furious" gun-running program also made an appearance in Randolph's dissent. The program was initiated in 2009 to track Mexican drug cartel leadership, but the DOJ lost track of almost 2,000 weapons, one of which was used to kill a border agent in 2010.
Randolph compared that to the FBI asking the anti-death penalty group, the Innocence Project, to assist with the Manning hair analysis process due to his execution date being close.
He said the expediency in the death penalty case was "mind boggling" but the families of victims in the gun-running operation "can't get the Department of Justice to identify the decision makers (whose actions resulted in the death of a border agent and many others) after years in inquiry, and that this is the same Department of Justice that grants and enforces Miranda warnings to foreign enemy combatants."
In its 5-4 ruling April 25, the state Supreme Court said there was "conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt" presented to an Oktibbeha County jury.
Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said Manning was being taken from a holding cell back to Building 29, where death row is located.
Epps said Manning had expressed optimism to him earlier that the execution would be stopped.
"He said he had faith in God and all was in His hands," Epps said.
Epps said the prison was being taken off lockdown — a usual procedure on an execution day and that Tiffany Miller's family was alerted about the stay. Family members who had planned to witness Tuesday's scheduled execution were already en route.
Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr in Jackson contributed to this report.