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Reflections on the holiday, death penalty

December 11, 2012

By SID SALTER

As I write this column, it is the 20th anniversary of the murders of Mississippi State University students Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller on Dec. 11, 1992. The man convicted of killing them remains alive and well and safe in the arms of the taxpayers of Mississippi at Parchman on Death Row.

Willie Jerome Manning, now 44, was convicted of murdering the two students in 1994 — and that began his journey through the judicial system. That journey continues now was Manning seeks to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that he deserves a new trial.

Manning’s claim is based on the contention that his defense was ineffective and that black residents of Oktibbeha County were inappropriately excluded from the jury that convicted him. Those claims were rejected by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals back in July.

As I interact with students on the MSU campus, I am more keenly aware of what was lost when those young students were slain. They had, as the cliché goes, their whole lives ahead of them.

What would they have done with the time stolen from them? What careers would they have launched? What families would they have produced? Whose lives would they have changed?

We’ll never know.

According to trial transcripts, the young couple was last seen alive in the early morning hours of Dec. 11, 1992, outside of Steckler’s fraternity house near the campus. The couple left the house around 1 a.m. in Miller’s car.

At 2:15 a.m., Steckler was discovered lying in the right hand lane of a county road.

Near his body, authorities found a gold token, three shell casings, and a projectile. Steckler’s injuries were consistent with having been run over by a car at a low speed. Miller’s body was discovered in the nearby woods. She had been shot twice in the face.

Miller’s car was discovered in front of an apartment building nearby. On the pavement near the driver’s side door, coins were found as well as a ring identified as belonging to Miller, all about 100 yards away from Miller’s residence.

The damning evidence against Manning was his own attempt to sell certain items belonging to his victims.

In the period between the time Steckler and Miller were killed and when Manning went to trial and was convicted for their murders, he was accused of a second grisly murder. Less than six weeks after the students were killed - on the evening of Jan. 18, 1993 – elderly women Emmoline Jimmerson and Alberta Jordan were found dead in their Brooksville Gardens apartment. Police found no signs of forced entry, and the apartment was not ransacked. Both women had been beaten about the head, and their throats were slashed.

It is Christmas and the season of charity. As I get older, I have less peace and certainty about how the death penalty is enforced and applied in this nation and this state.

But as I watch innocent college students walking across campus and as I see the elderly go about their daily struggles with age, infirmity and fixed incomes, I become more convinced that 20 years is too long for the likes of Willie Jerome Manning to languish in a jail cell while his victims rest in the cold ground.

If we are to have the death penalty in Mississippi — and we do — we should expedite the incessant appeals process in a manner that allows some connection between crime and punishment.

The present system produces appeal periods that stretch from 20 to 30 years and longer between the commission of crimes and the application of punishment.

That’s a broken system.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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