DA to ask court to set Manning free after 40 years

Monroe Man wrongfully incarcerated 40 years ago to be freed after DNA evidence raises doubts about 1978 murder conviction in, victim’s family happy innocent man to go free

 In 1977 Gerald Manning was charged with the murder and rape of Vonda Lanell Harris and has been in prison for 41 years. For four decades, he has maintained his innocence to mostly deaf ears. However, Monday, barring any unforeseen problems, District Attorney Steve Tew, armed with new DNA Exculpatory evidence will try to set the record straight and correct a wrong that was made 41 years ago.

  “We don’t want anyone who is innocent in jail,” said Tew Wednesday as his staff put the finishing touches on the court presentation for Monday. Tew said he wants to do what is just and what is legal in the Manning case.

   For forty years the Free Press has editorialized about the innocence of Manning, but was mostly ignored. A few years ago former District Attorney Jerry Jones read about the case and ordered his staff to review the evidence. He concluded that there was considerable doubt and wrote a letter to the Innocence Project in New Orleans asking them to review Manning’s case.

   The Innocence Project took the case and began researching it and found DNA evidence that showed that Manning was highly unlikely to have been the murderer of Vonda Harris. Armed with that evidence they brought the matter to the new DA Steve Tew, who began his own lengthy review of the evidence which resulted in his decision to go into Fourth District Court on Monday, June 18th and ask the courts to release Manning from prison.

   The request for post-conviction relief was filed in Monroe on April 23, 2018.

What happened?

   In 1977 Vonda Lanell Harris went to the American Legion Hall on Sunday night February 20, 1977. While there she had a conversation with a male friend, Frankie Joe Robinson. The conversation was interrupted when an Italian woman came in the Hall and confronted Harris claiming that Robinson was her man. She told Harris that if she continued that they would find her (Harris) somewhere face down in the mud.

   The next morning Vonda Harris was found naked, with her hands tied behind her back, face down in the mud in an alley dead.

   According to court records, “Her assailant had removed her jacket, jumpsuit, and shoes, pulled off her underwear, and left her girdle and pantyhose dangling around her ankles. Her hands were tied behind her back with her bra and a piece of cloth, and she was stabbed three times. Wielding an 18 inch two by four like a baseball bat, the attacker hit Ms. Harris over the head, killing her.”

   At trial, evidence indicated that Manning did not know Harris, had never been to the American Legion Hall and had an alibi for his whereabouts that night. He had several witnesses who testified in court confirming his alibi.

Six months, no suspects

   Over six months went without any suspects. The police interviewed scores of potential suspects, gave polygraph tests to many, including the Italian woman.

   At first, she was the only suspect who failed the polygraph test. Monroe Police called her to take the test again, but gave her a different set of questions. She passed the second time. The police gave polygraphs to 42 people who knew Harris in some way and interrogated over 100 others trying to find the killer but had no luck.

   At the time, the Black community was upset because the police seemed to be dragging their feet. In actuality, the police were desperately tried to solve the murder but kept hitting dead ends.

   The Black community raised several thousand dollars for a reward, but still there were no suspects.

   After six months, Gerald Manning was questioned by the police on an unrelated matter. At the time court records said Manning was, “an intellectually impaired high school student just three months past his 18th birthday.” Unlike the other 142 suspects interviewed who at least knew Harris or her family, Manning did not know Harris or have any connection to her family.

    The court records said, “Detectives looking to close the growing number of unsolved rapes and attacks on women” decided to ask Manning, out of the blue, whether he knew anything. The police found Manning to be a perpetual confessor, who believed he had to agree with authority figures. Manning confessed to several other rapes, including the rape and murder of Harris. The Monroe police closed every open rape case on its books and noted Manning as the suspect even though he was not charged. The cases were closed even though some of the rape victims told police Manning was not the rapist, despite his confessions.

      Thinking that if he told police what they wanted to hear he would be able to return to Wossman High the next day and play basketball Manning proceeded to make up murder confessions that included people who were supposed to have assisted him in the rapes and murder. The confessions proved to be bogus because the persons named were either in jail, or had alibis.

      The police never had evidence to put Manning on the scene of the crime. There was no fiber evidence, blood, footprints, fingerprints, sperm, hair follicles or eyewitnesses, but the District Attorney’s office decided to prosecute the case anyway.

     Retired Judge John Harrison was the prosecutor who relentless portrayed Manning as a cold-hearted murderer and rapist in the trial.

Why Manning?

    It was obvious that the confessions were worthless, but District Attorney Johnny Carl Parkerson decided to press the case anyway.

     Parkerson, who was very popular in the Black community, was being pressed by black friends to take action to stop the growing number of rapes in Monroe’s Southside.

     Manning became the perfect patsy; he had confessed. He was tried, even with the tainted confessions, and was convicted. He was sentenced to 20 years for attempted aggravated rape and life in prison for the murder of Ms. Harris.

     Ironically, despite Manning’s arrest and conviction, the rapes continued but were not reported to the media.

     The Monroe Black community was visibly upset at what was obviously a miscarriage of justice. Vonda Harris’s family pleaded with the courts not to jail Manning who was an innocent man.

     Harris’ family has maintained Manning’s innocence for 40 years. Her daughter, Penny, who was a child in 1977 has met with lawyers, and officials over the years trying to plead for the real murderer to be found. 

    Family members met with District Attorney Tew and pleaded for a review of Manning’s case.

     Charles Sampson, a Manning family member, was convinced of Gerald’s innocence. He came to Monroe from Seattle and copied boxes of documents, transcripts, and files and sent them to Free Press publisher Roosevelt Wright, Jr. He asked for help to keep the Manning case from being swept under the rug.

    After the legal remedies were exhausted by the late Paul Henry Kidd, the Free Press kept writing, and editorializing and pushing the issue. Sampson’s box of filings, which contained records, police department reports, and notes that had mysteriously disappeared from the courthouse, was given to former District Attorney Jerry Jones whose staff, assisted by Warren Brown, help formed his final conclusion.

     It was Warren Brown who convinced Jones to pursue relief. Brown had been one of the detectives in the Manning case who complained of irregularities in police procedures in the case. He was the only black detective on the case. When Brown started to complain about breaches of procedure by the police department, he was removed from the case by his superiors.

     Attorney Kristin Wenstron, of the Innocence Project New Orleans, put the final pieces together that paved the way for Manning’s day in court Monday. Wenstrom now works for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, but continued representing Manning.

     The Innocence Project nationwide has helped free over 300 people from prison over the past 30 years based on DNA evidence. 

     It’s was the DNA evidence found by the IP that made it possible for Manning to have a chance to walk free.

     It is expected that Manning may be set free Monday. As soon as his paperwork is cleared he’ll walk out of Angola a free man.

     He will not be on probation, and will not have to register as a sex offender.

     He will be a free man but he has to catch up for 40 years.

     He’s never used a GPS system, never owned a cell phone, never seen an mp3 player, or owned a flat screen TV, or knew anything about the wonderful stuff called DNA.

     The wheels of Justice grind slow, but they grind sure.