After serving 14 years on Texas’ death row for a murder he didn’t commit, Michael Blair was exonerated in 2008 when a series of DNA tests proved his innocence. Blair was the 17th person in the United States who spent time on death row and was subsequently exonerated by DNA testing.
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On September 4, 1993, seven-year-old Ashley Estell was with her family at Carpenter Park in Plano, Texas. She disappeared from the park that day and was strangled to death. Her body was found the next day by a roadside.
The Investigation and Trial
Michael Blair quickly became a suspect in this case because he had previously been convicted of a sexual offense. Three eyewitnesses told police they saw him in the park that day; these eyewitnesses, however, did not identify Blair in a photo lineup as the man they saw in the park until after his picture had appeared in the media. In fact, at least two witnesses testified that they saw Blair’s photo on TV before identifying him to police. No eyewitnesses ever said they saw Blair and Estell together.
Three days after the crime was committed, on September 7, two Plano city employees noticed a car near the site where the victim’s body had been found. They noted the license plate number, which police matched to Blair. On September 10, two Plano Police Department evidence technicians were working at the scene where the victim’s body was found, and they noticed a car in the area. They followed the car as it drove away and eventually conducted a traffic stop. Blair was the driver. He had a flyer from the search for the victim in his car, and told officers that he – along with dozens of other members of the community – had volunteered to assist in the search for the victim and wanted to see the location where the body was found.
Police asked Blair to accompany them to the station, where he was interrogated for ten hours, and repeatedly denied involvement in the crime. While interrogating Blair, police officers searched his car with his consent. They found and collected a stuffed animal, a knife, a blanket and several hairs. At the end of the interrogation, Blair left the police station.
During the investigation, police also collected hairs and fibers from the body of the victim, and a clump of hairs from Jack Carter Park, which is over two miles from the park where the victim was last seen. Although there was no evidence that either Blair or the victim had been in this other park on the day of the crime, this clump of hair became a key piece of evidence at trial.
Blair was arrested on in September 1993 and charged with capital murder. During his trial, the prosecution’s main evidence consisted of the eyewitnesses who allegedly saw Blair in the park on the day the victim disappeared and near the area where the victim’s body was found in the days after it was found.
The jury also heard from experts regarding hair and fiber comparisons that had been conducted on evidence from Blair’s body and his car and from the victim’s body. A forensic analyst testified that a clump of hair found in Jack Carter Park (the location that had no connection to Blair, the victim, or the crime) contained hairs microscopically similar to those of both the victim and Blair. (The analyst also said the clump contained hair from other unknown individuals.) Because there is not adequate empirical data on the frequency of various class characteristics in human hair, an analyst’s assertion that hairs are consistent or similar is inherently prejudicial and lacks probative value.
The expert also said hairs found in Blair’s car had a “strong association” with hairs from the victim, but that he couldn’t make a positive identification. A FBI expert testified that the chemical makeup of fibers from a stuffed animal in Blair’s car “most resembled” fibers found on the victim’s body, with only “subtle differences.”
Based on the eyewitness identifications and forensic testimony, the jury deliberated for only 27 minutes before convicting Blair. He was sentenced to death for the murder.
On appeal, Blair and his legal team – which included the Innocence Project – sought DNA testing on the hair evidence used in Blair’s conviction and on fingernail scrapings from the victim’s body. Testing finally began in 2002, eight years after Blair was sent to death row, and continued through 2008. All of the tests excluded Blair as a potential contributor of biological evidence at the crime scene and all of the hair analysis used to convict Blair was contradicted by DNA testing.
The DNA profiles of two males were found on skin cells under the victim’s fingernails, and neither profile matched Blair. Additionally, DNA testing conducted by the state on clothing from the victim pointed to the possible involvement of a man, now deceased, who was a suspect at the time of crime. Due to DNA evidence pointing to Blair’s innocence, Collin County prosecutors asked a judge in May 2008 to throw out his conviction, and all charges were dropped in August.
Blair was removed from death row but not released from prison. While on death row, Blair confessed to other crimes he said he committed as a young man and apologized to the victims. He pled guilty to these crimes and received a life sentence.
A troubling irony of Blair’s exoneration is the law his wrongful conviction left as a legacy. Less than a year after Blair was sentenced to death, then-Governor George W. Bush signed “Ashley’s Laws,” named after the victim in the case, expanding punishment and registration for sex offenders. Blair’s record as a sex offender led police to focus on him as a suspect and contributed to his conviction. It then led state lawmakers to expand the punishment for sex offenders, in an effort to prevent murders like the murder of Ashley Estell. Based partly on Blair’s record, the community rushed to judgment and nearly executed a man for a crime he didn’t commit, while the apparent real perpetrator, who had no record, evaded justice.