DNA Frees Man After 41 Years For a Crime He Didn’t Commit
A 59-year-old man who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he did not commit was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Gerald Manning was 17 when he was sentenced for the rape and murder of Vonda Harris in 1977. A recent DNA test proved Manning’s innocence, and he was released from prison after 41 years of incarceration. But because he took a plea bargain, he won’t be getting any compensation for wrongful conviction from the state, as The Advocate reported.
“We Stood By Him and We Don’t Even Know Him”
Vonda Harris was found naked and dead behind a vacant house in Monroe, Louisiana in February 1977. She had stab wounds, and the coroner stated she had also been raped. Several suspects were interrogated, but the police could not build enough evidence for a case. Then nearly six months after the murder, Manning was brought to the Monroe police station on another matter entirely. He was a high school student with intellectual impairment, but the police grilled him for over 28 hours until Manning gave “numerous, varied, and conflicting confessions to the murder.”
Manning maintained his innocence throughout his time in prison, and the slain victim’s family sided with him, saying they were certain he didn’t do it. Vonda Harris, 23, had two daughters Penny Harris Brothers and Rhondalyn Harris who were less than six years old when she was murdered. Both children, now adults, looked into their mother’s case over the years and always believed Manning was innocent and advocated for his release.
“We stood by him and we don’t even know him,” said Rhondalyn Harris, younger daughter. “We prayed, we cried, because who wants someone to be locked up for your parent’s murder who didn’t do it?”
Both children said they were not happy with the conditions under which Manning was released.
“I’m happy that he’s out but I still feel like he was given a raw deal,” said Brothers, the eldest daughter of Vonda Harris. “If he’s innocent, he’s innocent. … They could have corrected their wrong.”
Kristin Wenstrom, a former attorney with the Innocence Project New Orleans, got interested in Manning’s case ten years ago after former Ouachita District Attorney Jerry Jones expressed concern over it. Now an attorney for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, Wenstrom dug into the case and found a box kept by the clerk of the court that sentenced Manning 41 years ago. The box contained bloody clothes torn from Harris and a weapon used for the murder. DNA tests revealed that Manning had nothing to do with the murder.
Wenstrom said Manning could have fought his wrongful conviction in court, but it could take years for him to be fully exonerated. So he took the plea bargain and got released, eager to see his elderly mother. A full exoneration would have allowed Manning to receive financial compensation from the state, but because he plead to the lesser charges of theft and battery he won’t be eligible for any such post-conviction state compensations.
“It makes you angry at the state, because it was just brushed under the rug,” said Rhondalyn Harris. “You took an innocent kid and you took him off the street and you took the life from him — they need to pay him.”
Renee Slajda, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, explained how not unusual it is for kids to give false confessions.
“All those things that bring kids like Gerald to falsely confess are actually biological, their brains aren’t fully developed,” said Slajda. “They are particularly susceptible to peer pressure but also authorities like police. He actually just wanted to go home, he couldn’t understand the consequences of confessing.”
Manning, an intellectually challenged minor, was convicted based on a false confession given after 28 hours of interrogation and without a guardian, lawyer or advocate present. Now 41 years later, he is finally a free man.