On June 19th, 2018, 59 year old Gerald Manning walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a free man for the first time in his adult life.
Mr. Manning was a 17-year-old high school student when Vonda Harris was raped and murdered in Monroe, Louisiana in 1977, a tragedy that roiled the local community. Six months later, desperate police interrogated the naïve teen for 33 hours without a lawyer or a parent present until, according to Mr. Manning, “I got tired of it and I just said what they wanted me to say.”
Although Mr. Manning immediately disavowed his statements, the false confession was the only evidence used to convict him of attempted aggravated rape and second-degree murder, which then carried a mandatory life sentence despite his young age.
Vonda Harris’ family has never believed that Mr. Manning was involved in her death. At trial, Ms. Harris’ mother sat with Mr. Manning’s mother/parents(?), both sick with grief for the loss of their children.
“Our family never had justice,” said Ms. Harris’ sister, Gale Brown. “We’ve suffered all these years knowing that an innocent man was sitting in prison while Vonda’s real killer went free.”
Recent scientific research into adolescent brain development explains why children like Mr. Manning are four times more likely than adults to falsely confess. Because their brains are not fully developed, children are more susceptible to outside pressure, more impulsive, and less able to weigh consequences than adults.
These findings, coupled with the fact that children are especially capable of positive change as they mature, have led to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that limit life without parole sentences for children to only the rarest of cases – a mandate Louisiana has struggled to follow.
Despite the weakness of the evidence used to convict Mr. Manning, it took newly discovered, exculpatory DNA evidence to move his case forward. In an agreement with the Ouachita Parish District Attorney’s Office, Mr. Manning entered an “Alford plea” yesterday to lesser crimes, allowing him to maintain his innocence while accepting the new charges. He was resentenced to time-served for the decades he spent in prison.
Although Mr. Manning left Angola with nothing but the clothes on his back, the plea agreement means he cannot seek compensation from the state for his wrongful incarceration. Those who would like to help him transition from prison to the outside world can donate to his freedom fund or purchase items from his Amazon wish list here.