BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Almost 60 years old, Gerald Manning still relies on the lessons he learned while playing high school sports, his last experience in free society before spending 41 years behind prison walls.
He’s counting on the hard work and perseverance that were instilled in him on the Wossman High School basketball court and football field in Monroe to serve him well as he returns to society - just as they did at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
He’s spent the last 18 years at Angloa working as a janitor for the Main Prison office building. He’d wake up at 3:15 a.m. every day to start the job, trying to pick up the slack from the night-shift janitor, sometimes working until 5 or 6 p.m. He remembered a time before Angola, when he had to stay late at football practice in high school to get something right, sometimes until the stadium lights were needed to light the field.
“The reason why I think I was a good worker, because I was a good athlete,” Manning said two days after his release. “The type of training you had to go through, it was still in me. I had that inner strength that pushed even when you didn’t want to push.”
And when finding his spot on a prison sports team, Manning said, he never wanted to show off or be a star, instead choosing to partner with reliable teammates, working together.
“I always wanted to play with the underdog,” Manning said. “It’s a bigger thrill when you’re the underdog and you beat the big team.”
The community that formed around Manning over the last four decades, collectively fighting for his exoneration, has seen him as that underdog in real life: someone who was finally able to achieve a measure of justice despite the odds stacked against him.
“I spent my life being an advocate for people who got used by the system, unfortunately there’s a whole lot of Gerald Mannings,” said Rev. Roosevelt Wright, a civil rights activist in Monroe. “You can’t find a person in the black community who believes he did it, and that’s why everybody was so frustrated.”...Wright was part of a team working on Manning’s behalf that included the family of the murder and rape victim, local civil rights activists, much of Monroe’s black community, Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys and the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.Manning was convicted in 1978 of the murder and rape of Vonda Harris, a 23-year-old Monroe