Innocent teen sentenced to life is freed after 40 years

MONROE, La. (AP) — A Monroe man jailed for life for murder is free for the first time in his adult life.
Innocence Project New Orleans and Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, in a news release, said Gerald Manning — now 59 — Tuesday walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.The News-Star reports Manning was 17 when convicted in the 1977 rape and death of Vonda Harris. In April, the Innocence Project sought post-conviction relief, arguing DNA testing exonerated Manning and that an initial investigation by Monroe Police was flawed.

Harris’ family also advocated for his release.

In an agreement with Ouachita Parish prosecutors, Manning entered an “Alford plea” Monday to lesser crimes, allowing him to maintain his innocence while accepting the new charges. He was resentenced to time-served and released.

The newspaper reports a law change paved the way for a reconsideration of Manning’s initial sentence.

In 2012, the Louisiana Supreme Court found Louisiana’s mandatory life imprisonment for those who commit homicide while under the age of 18 was unconstitutional. The Louisiana Legislature then revised the sentencing and parole statutes to allow anyone who commits homicide while under the age of 18 to be sentenced to life with the eligibility to apply for parole after serving 25 years. As of June 18, Manning had been in custody for 41 years.

On April 27, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered defendants like Manning be given the benefit of the new legislation. Based upon the current sentencing and parole laws that are applicable to Manning and the request of the Harris family, District Attorney Steve Tew consented.

The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights attorney Kristin Wenstrom said, in a statement, the result is bittersweet.

“I am thrilled that Gerald’s wrongful incarceration is finally being brought to an end, and that he will soon be reunited with his loving family,” Wenstrom said. “Gerald was an innocent child who had his life robbed from him. He deserves to be fully exonerated, but this compromise allowed him to be released today rather than forcing him to wait years in prison while we fight in court.”

Wenstrom said Manning leaves state custody “with nothing but the clothes on his back,” and the plea deal “means he cannot seek compensation from the state for his wrongful incarceration.”

A freedom fund has been set up at Mighty Cause with a $5,000 goal to help Manning following his release from prison.