(CBS/AP) PARCHMAN, Miss. - The Mississippi Supreme Court indefinitely delayed yesterday's scheduled execution of Willie Jerome Manning amid questions involving evidence in the case. They intervened hours before he was set to die for the slayings of two college students.
Manning, who had challenged errors involving evidence analysis, was originally set to receive a lethal injection at 6 p.m. CDT Tuesday at the state prison in Parchman. But with mere hours remaining, the state's high court blocked the execution until it rules further in the case.
Manning was convicted in 1994 in the shooting deaths of two Mississippi State University students, Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller. Their bodies were found in a rural area in December 1992.
The FBI has said in recent days that there were errors in agents' testimony about ballistics tests and hair analysis in the case.
Manning's lawyers had argued in recent filings before the Mississippi Supreme Court that the execution should be blocked based on the U.S. Justice Department's disclosures about testimony that it says exceeded the limits of science.
The court ruled 8-1 on Tuesday for a stay. The court had previously split 5-4 in decisions in the case.
An FBI letter, sent late Monday, said there was incorrect testimony related to tests on bullets found in a tree by Manning's house that were compared to bullets found in the victims.
That kind of examination "is not based on absolute certainty but rather a reasonable degree of scientific certainty," the letter said.
Manning's girlfriend had 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 scene of the crime.
Last week, the FBI said in a letter that its microscopic analysis of evidence, particularly of hair samples found in a car belonging to one of the victims, contained erroneous statements.
Manning's lawyers seized on that as a key to seeking a stay of execution. The defense lawyers asked the high court to block the execution for additional testing.
In dueling court filings Monday and Tuesday, Manning's attorneys said new DNA testing could exonerate the inmate, but the Mississippi attorney general's office argued that there was overwhelming evidence of Manning's guilt.
On Tuesday, Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said Manning had expressed optimism to him and the guards outside his holding cell that the execution would be stopped.
"He said he had faith in God and all was in His hands. He said he had faith," Epps said.
Epps said officials had contacted members of Tiffany Miller's family about the stay. They had planned to witness Tuesday's scheduled execution and were already en route.