BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Almost 60 years old, Gerald Manning still relies on the lessons he learned while playing high school sports, his last experience in free society before spending 41 years behind prison walls.
He’s counting on the hard work and perseverance that were instilled in him on the Wossman High School basketball court and football field in Monroe to serve him well as he returns to society - just as they did at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Manning was released from the prison, after new DNA evidence bolstered his innocence in a 1977 murder and rape, and is ready for a fresh start.
He’s spent the last 18 years at Angloa working as a janitor for the Main Prison office building. He’d wake up at 3:15 a.m. every day to start the job, trying to pick up the slack from the night-shift janitor, sometimes working until 5 or 6 p.m. He remembered a time before Angola, when he had to stay late at football practice in high school to get something right, sometimes until the stadium lights were needed to light the field.
“The reason why I think I was a good worker, because I was a good athlete,” Manning said two days after his release. “The type of training you had to go through, it was still in me. I had that inner strength that pushed even when you didn’t want to push.”
And when finding his spot on a prison sports team, Manning said, he never wanted to show off or be a star, instead choosing to partner with reliable teammates, working together.
“I always wanted to play with the underdog,” Manning said. “It’s a bigger thrill when you’re the underdog and you beat the big team.”
The community that formed around Manning over the last four decades, collectively fighting for his exoneration, has seen him as that underdog in real life: someone who was finally able to achieve a measure of justice despite the odds stacked against him.
“I spent my life being an advocate for people who got used by the system, unfortunately there’s a whole lot of Gerald Mannings,” said Rev. Roosevelt Wright, a civil rights activist in Monroe. “You can’t find a person in the black community who believes he did it, and that’s why everybody was so frustrated.”
Wright was part of a team working on Manning’s behalf that included the family of the murder and rape victim, local civil rights activists, much of Monroe’s black community, Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys and the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.
Manning was convicted in 1978 of the murder and rape of Vonda Harris, a 23-year-old Monroe woman, after giving multiple, inconsistent confessions of the crime to police. A cognitively delayed 17-year-old, Manning sat through more than 28 hours of interrogation without an attorney or parent present. Detectives “told me I wasn’t going to go home unless I make him a statement so I went on and made it,” he would later testify.
Manning said he remembers the trial as a whirlwind, never truly understanding what he had gotten into.
“It was like a twilight zone, you’re doing good one day, you’re out in the world, then the next day… ,” Manning said, pausing. “I was just confused myself … Everything is being talked over my head, I’m wondering what’s even going on.”
Over the first 20 years of his incarceration, Manning and his lawyers filed, and were denied, four applications for post-conviction relief. It wasn’t until 2012 when a judge granted Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys’ request for DNA testing of evidence that Manning’s quest for justice finally swung in a new direction.
DNA testing ruled out Manning as a possible contributor to the biological material remaining on the murder weapon or the clothing of the victim in the 1977 crime, according to court filings. Backed with the new evidence, as well as recent studies on brain development and psychology that show both juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to making false confessions, Manning entered into an “Alford plea” last week, maintaining his innocence while formally pleading guilty to certain lesser charges. The Ouachita District Attorney’s Office in return vacated Manning’s murder and rape charges, making him eligible for immediate release.
“I was just excited, just knowing after all those years, you get a chance to go free,” Manning said.
He chose not to pursue full exoneration, which could have taken years to get through the courts, so he could be reunited with his elderly mother. Without a full exoneration, Manning is not eligible for any state compensation, but he said he was never worried about the money.
“I would prefer to have (been exonerated) than to go on and take a lesser charge, even though I didn’t do none of it, but it was all good for me because I still go home,” Manning said. “I feel like a little kid again, because I had never in my life been on my own. . When I was locked up I was staying with my mother, I was in high school.”
Manning spent his first week of freedom in his own apartment at Joseph Homes in Baton Rouge, a transitional housing program for former prisoners run by Catholic Charities, where the nonprofit Louisiana Parole Project is helping him adjust to life on the outside, technology and society. He had his first ever meal at a restaurant, ordering a catfish po-boy and looks forward to visiting family in Seattle and playing basketball with his brother.
“I’m not mad, I think things happen, you just have to move on,” Manning said. I’m not the first and I ain’t going to be the last, and I ain’t bitter at nobody. . The years are gone.”
He said he wants to take advantage of his opportunity for freedom, especially thinking about the men he left behind at Angola.
“What we do reflects on those guys, I got to represent them, I left a lot of good guys behind,” Manning said. “People become family, regardless of the situation people may be in. Some people may have committed a crime, but some people be there for something they didn’t do - but, still, people are people.”
Rev. Roosevelt Wright remembers covering the trial that convicted Manning back in 1977 for the Monroe Free Press, the newspaper he founded years earlier to cover the civil rights movement.
“They prosecuted him, basically found him guilty with no fiber, no fingerprints, nothing,” Wright said. “There was nothing to connect him with the case, except his confessions. … It was convenient.”
Wright said he didn’t know Manning or his family, but he was infuriated at how this high-schooler was convicted especially when he thought it was obvious he was innocent.
“I’ve been pushing his case for 40 years,” Wright said. “People call me crazy, tell me I’m wasting his time.”… I’ve never met him, I didn’t know anything about it, I had no motive at all except I saw injustice being done.”
Wright also noted that race became an issue in a case - not because of the victim or suspect, who were both black - but because of the lawyer who volunteered to represent Manning, Paul Henry Kidd.
Kidd had become known in north Louisiana for his civil rights work, Wright said, filing lawsuits the forced school and police jury integration and promoted equal rights, angering much of the white community.
“There was no way possible they were going to let Paul Henry Kidd win that trial,” Wright said. “He was basically hated by the powers that be.”
For years, Wright continued to bring up the case to prosecutors, asking them to reevaluate it, but it wasn’t until Ouachita District Attorney Jerry Jones reviewed the case and sent a letter to the Innocence Project New Orleans that things started to happen.
“He sent me the entire transcript of the trial. and the problem with the case was that Gerald Manning confessed to several crimes he couldn’t have committed. and that gave me pause,” Jones said. “The scariest thing that can happen to anyone who’s a prosecutor is to put someone in jail that may be innocent.”
His office began working on the case with Innocence Project New Orleans, and when he retired, his successor District Attorney Robert “Steve” Tew continued to work on it.
Tew did not return multiple calls for comment on the case.
“Steve Tew took a step he didn’t have to take to free a man who could have been innocent,” Jones said. “I think there was a reasonable doubt, and if there’s a reasonable doubt, they’re not guilty — that’s Louisiana law. . I think the DA, with courage, took the right action . I think he should receive credit for this.”
However, Manning’s lawyer Kristin Wenstrom said she wishes the prosecutors did not force the plea deal, calling it a bittersweet ending for her client.
“Gerald was an innocent child who had his life robbed from him,” Wenstrom said. “He deserves to be fully exonerated.”
Manning said his work ethic was often noticed by his superiors at Angola - his last day at work they brought him in a cake, which he shared with his dorm mates.
“It was a job equivalent for 6 people, but I did it by myself for 18 years, it’s hard to find good workers,” Manning said. “It’s better like that, I know what I have to do, I’m not going to sit up there and half do a job.”
He hopes to find a way to own his own janitorial business when he moves back home to Monroe and he also looks forward to joining a gym, working out among his fellow members of society.
“I’ve been looking at them for 40 years (on TV) and now I can be a part of it,” Manning said.
He said he has no doubt he will stay on the right path, since high school he has always remembered to stay with the right crowd, not get caught up in drugs or alcohol - because back then he could get kicked off the team, or in prison, sent to administrative segregation, known as the “dungeon.”
“I’m 59 years old, if you smoking, drugs, illegal activity, I ain’t going to come around you,” Manning said. “That’s the only way you’re going to survive in life, you got to do the right thing and stay positive.”
And he always has stayed positive, never doubting his innocence - or the success he knows he will find outside of prison.
“It ain’t like I gave up, I just needed somebody to get behind me and push me,” Manning said. “I won’t let the penitentiary beat me. When I walked out the front gate, I won.”
Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com
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