For more than four decades in prison, Gerald Manning maintained his innocence — serving time for a brutal murder and rape for which he was convicted as a juvenile — until, only recently, DNA evidence bolstered his chance at long-awaited affirmation. 

During all those years, the family of the woman murdered and raped in 1977 in Monroe fought on the same side as Manning, never believing he was the perpetrator of the crime. 

So when Manning, now 59, walked free Tuesday evening through the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, there were two families who could finally feel some relief, some justice.

"We stood by him and we don’t even know him," said Rhondalyn Harris, who is the youngest daughter of Vonda Harris, the murder and rape victim. "We prayed, we cried, because who wants someone to be locked up for your parent’s murder who didn’t do it?"

Rhondalyn Harris said she and her sister — who were both younger than 6 years old when their mother was killed — are frustrated how Manning eventually got his freedom because he was not fully exonerated, as they believe he should have been. 

On Monday, Manning entered a plea deal offered by Ouachita District Attorney Robert Tew, vacating the 1978 conviction of second-degree murder and attempted aggravated rape; in return, Manning pleaded guilty to lesser charges: receiving stolen goods over $500, theft of goods over $500 and aggravated battery. He was re-sentenced for those crimes, but received credit for his 41 years in prison, making him eligible for immediate release. 

"I’m happy that he’s out but I still feel like he was given a raw deal," said Penny Harris Brothers, the eldest daughter of Vonda Harris. "If he’s innocent, he’s innocent. … They could have corrected their wrong."

Ten years ago, Manning's lawyer, Kristin Wenstrom, began looking into his case after former Ouachita District Attorney Jerry Jones expressed concern about it. Wenstrom was then an attorney with Innocence Project New Orleans, a nonprofit that works to correct wrongful convictions. Wenstrom now works as an attorney for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights. 

"It’s bittersweet because it was a long fight," Wenstrom said Tuesday. "Gerald deserves to be exonerated, but again I’m happy for him and I’m happy for his family that this wrongful incarceration has been brought to an end, and he’ll be able to be with his family and make a life for himself outside of prison.”

Wenstrom said getting a full exoneration could have taken even more years going through the court system, but Manning decided coming home as soon as possible was more important, especially considering the age of his elderly mother. 

A 1977 murder 

In February 1977, Vonda Harris was found dead, completely naked behind a vacant house in Monroe, according to court filings of the case. She was stabbed three times, but the coroner then ruled she died of blunt force to her head, and also determined she had been raped. Many of the suspects brought in for questioning by police soon after the crime passed a lie-detector-like test, and were soon after ruled out as suspects, the filings show. 

"Nearly six months after Ms. Harris’ death, Gerald Manning, an intellectually impaired high school student, just three months past his eighteenth birthday, was brought into the Monroe police station on an unrelated matter," Wenstrom wrote in Manning's application for post-conviction relief. There, Manning was interrogated for more than 28 hours and eventually gave "numerous, varied, and conflicting confessions to the murder." 

Wenstrom said that while looking into the case decades later, she found a box stored by the clerk of court containing clothing stripped from Vonda Harris's body and a weapon used to kill her, and that evidence was tested for DNA. 

"The results confirm what Ms. Harris’ entire family has always believed — that Gerald Manning was not involved in her murder," Wenstrom wrote in the application. "These results are clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Manning is factually innocent."

Wenstrom said Manning was particularly vulnerable when questioned by police, because he was a juvenile, had an intellectual disability and was not accompanied by a parent or lawyer. She said Manning's response to the situation — giving a false confession — was not exceptional given the circumstances. 

"All those things that bring kids like Gerald to falsely confess are actually biological, their brains aren't fully developed," said Renee Slajda, the spokeswoman for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights. "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."

The Ouachita District Attorney's Office released a statement Monday about Manning's case; however, they did not mention the DNA evidence that was key in moving his case forward or acknowledge that the initial convictions were incorrect. The statement focuses on the fact that Manning was 17 when he was convicted in Harris' murder, and that recent state laws and Supreme Court cases have changed how juveniles should be sentenced.  

"Based upon the current sentencing and parole laws that are applicable to Manning and the request of the Harris family, the District Attorney has consented, and Gerald Manning has pled guilty and been resentenced. Manning is now eligible for release," the statement says. 

The Harris family also hope the District Attorney's Office will re-open the case and find the person who did murder their mother. 

Tew could not be reached for additional comment Tuesday. 

'It's hard to call this justice'

Because Manning did take certain guilty pleas Monday, Slajda said, he will not be eligible for any post-conviction financial compensation from the state, only available when a conviction is completely overturned. 

"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."

However, Slajda said she hopes the community will fill in the gaps. She said that has already started, as he will spend his first few weeks out of prison supported by the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit that helps long-term prisoners, especially juvenile lifers, transition to free society, and then she's hopeful fundraisers set up by the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights and Innocence Project New Orleans can fill in some gaps, though she knows it will be difficult. 

“It’s hard to call this justice, it’s hard to call this a victory, because clearly Gerald and his family will never get these 40 years back," Slajda said. "Obviously, though, we are so happy they will be reunited. … We feel really good knowing he’s going back to a community that supports him and has fought for him for so long.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.