Justice Department suggests evidence used to help convict Manning was flawed as officials reportedly agree to further tests

The fate of a death row prisoner in Mississippi remains in the balance just days ahead of Tuesday's planned execution, following the intervention of federal officials who claim that forensic evidence used to help convict him was flawed.

Willie Manning is set to be put to death next week for the murders of two students, Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, whose bodies were discovered in rural Mississippi in 1992. They had both been shot dead.

But the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi has reported that a lawyer for the Justice Department has now written to a local district attorney, Manning's lawyer and the Innocence Project advocacy group raising its concerns about the evidence.

The letter reportedly states that a review of the original tests had been carried out. "Through this review, we have determined that testimony containing erroneous statements regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis was used in this case," the letter said.

It added that those statements "exceeded the limits of science" at that time and therefore were invalid.

The paper also reported that the FBI had now agreed to further testing of evidence in the case. An article in Saturday's edition of the Washington Post, which has devoted a series of articles to questioning the conviction of Manning, stated that a spokesman for Mississippi governor Phil Bryant confirmed that the facts of the case were now being reviewed.

Reportedly, federal officials uncovered the problems with Manning's conviction as part of a broad review, which began last summer, to recheck evidence from 21,000 cases involving forensic hair examinations.

Manning's defenders and anti-death penalty advocates say his case is yet another example of a man facing the ultimate punishment for a crime he did not commit. Yet last week the Mississippi supreme court denied a request by Manning's lawyers to re-examine a rape kit, fingernail scrapings, hairs and fingerprint evidence in the case.

The court ruled narrowly that even if Manning's DNA was absent, that would not be enough to overturn his 1994 conviction.

"Our examination anew of the record reveals that conclusive, overwhelming evidence of guilt was presented to the jury," presiding justice Michael Randolph wrote in the decision.

Manning was also separately convicted and sentenced to death for killing two elderly women in their apartment in 1993 elsewhere in the state. He has appealed against that conviction.

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[image via Mississippi Dept. of Corrections]