Gerald Manning will be a free man next week, after local politics took 41 years of his life, and stole most of his future. Thanks to the efforts of District Attorney Steve Tew, an awful wrong has been corrected, the court dismissed the murder and rape charges against him and when his processing is complete, he’ll walk out of Angola a free man.
Manning was arrested in 1977 and charged with the rape and murder of Vonda Lanell Harris. To make that charge stick he was also charged with the rape of a 60 year old woman who lived next door to him. Even further, the Monroe Police Department dumped nearly every unresolved rape case it had on Manning and cleared its books by attributing them all to Manning.
Manning was a Wossman High basketball player. He was in the 11th grade, but wasn’t a stellar student. He had a strange mental disorder that for some reason made him feel that he had to agree with anything that people in authority told him.
The essence of the testimony went something like this:
Did you rape the 60 year old lady next door? Yes Sir.
Did you rape Vonda Harris? Yes Sir.
Do you know Vonda Harris? No, sir!
Have you ever seen her in your life? No sir.
Even on the night you raped her? No sir.
Did you hit her in the head with a board? Yes sir?
On the night she died where were you? At home watching TV with my family.
Did you leave your house that night? No sir.
You didn’t leave your house, but raped and murdered Vonda Harris that same night, didn’t you? Yes sir!
You raped all these other women, too didn’t you? Yes sir!
After 33 hours of questioning, Manning had one question for the nice men who were asking questions, “Will I be able to go to basketball practice tomorrow, coach gon’ be mad if I’m late.”
Pages and pages of evidence in the Manning case reflected that although he was 17 years old that he had the mind of a child in most matters and would confess to just about anything. That fact was brought out at his trial. The Jury just couldn’t believe that anyone would confess to crimes they didn’t commit. They wouldn’t convict him of raping the old lady, so DA Johnny Parkerson tried him again and lowered the charge to conspiracy and he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years. They took that conviction and used it to convince jurors that he was a dangerous man (evidence from the 60 year old lady’s case was allowed in Harris murder case).
The fact that the Monroe police gave 42 people lie detector tests, including Manning, and all but one passed the test was not told to the jury. The one who failed was Estelle Miletello. She was given the test again with a different set of non-related questions and she passed. The fact that over 100 suspects had been interviewed, many of whom had made threats against Harris, was not told to the jury. The fact that Manning had multiple confessions that named people who assisted him in the murder who could not possibly have been present because some of them were in jail, was not told to the jury.
The jury ignored the fact that there was no rape related semen in Vonda Harris although Manning said he raped her along with four other men. No finger prints, fiber evidence, witnesses. There was nothing except his confessions. To make matters worse the judge made each of his three sentences run back to back, 20 years for the old lady. After that he would serve 20 years for attempting to rape Vonda Harris. After that he would serve life for the murder of Vonda Harris.
Former DA Jerry Jones reviewed the evidence and saw something wrong. He invited the Innocence Project of New Orleans to take Manning’s case. They did. District Attorney Steve Tew saw the evidence, and the DNA evidence and decided a wrong had to be corrected. It took some legal doing and a strange thing called an “Alford” plea in which a suspect pleads guilty to a lesser charge without admitting guilt.
For Manning it means, he is not guilty of raping the 60 year old lady and neither is he guilty of the murder and rape of Vonda Lanell Harris. He will not be listed as a sex offender and will not be on parole. The system robbed him. He has only an 11th grade education. He’s never used a cell phone, has no idea what the internet is, has never seen a YouTube video, made a Facebook post, or sent an email. He won’t have Social Security, no retirement, and no work history.
The system robbed him of his life. Even worse, the system stopped looking for the real murderer of Vonda Harris. The real murderer has escaped justice for 41 years because the Monroe Police Department dumped it all on Manning. Gerald Manning’s case has been closed. His records have been ordered sealed, so there’s no chance some crooked politician will reopen it and dump it all on him again.
That means the Vonda Harris murder is a cold case. Many of the 100 people interviewed are still alive. The case can be solved. Will it take another 40 years?