Texas court did what Burnett’s court would not

Last May, a Collin County court in Texas dismissed capital murder charges against Michael Blair who had been on death row for the 1993 murder of Ashley Estell. After more than a decade of legal appeals and requests for DNA testing, the hair evidence that had been used to convict Blair was shown to be mistaken. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that no reasonable jury would convict Blair based on the existing evidence.

The District Attorney’s office filed a motion to dismiss the charges on August 25, 2007 stating, “It has been determined that this case should be dismissed in the interest of justice so that the offense charged in the indictment can be further investigated.” The Plano Police Department is now reinvestigating the 15-year-old case to find the true killer. The DNA evidence that cleared Blair indicates that another man, now deceased, is a plausible suspect in the girl’s death. Referred to only as “Suspect 4” in court documents, this possible perpetrator showed an obsession with the victim and bought a grave plot as close as he could get next to her resting place. He has been deceased for at least 10 years.

The case was made famous in the mid-1990’s by a series of legal reforms known as “Ashley’s Laws.” Named after the victim Ashley Estell, these laws created longer prison sentences and lifetime sex offender registration requirements.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s innocence list, Blair is the fourth person to be exonerated from death row in 2008 and the ninth in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated. His case brings the total number of exonerations from death row to 130 since 1973. Blair remains in prison on other charges.

DPIC’s innocence list consists of those former death row inmates who have been acquitted of all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row, who have had all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row dismissed by the prosecution, or who have been granted a complete pardon based on evidence of innocence.

This dismissal comes on the heels of a statement by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins that he will re-examine nearly 40 death penalty convictions and would halt executions, if necessary, to give the reviews time to proceed. After an exoneration of an innocent man in his first week in office and a total of 19 DNA-based (non-death penalty) exonerations in his county, Watkins wanted to ensure that no innocent people were executed during his tenure. “I don’t want someone to be executed on my watch for something they didn’t do,” explained Watkins. Texas leads the country in executions with 414, including 9 this year.

After the ruling, the Dallas Morning News published the following editorial:

Collin County District Attorney John Roach’s decision yesterday to fold his hand in the 1993 capital murder case against Michael Blair was the right call. But it should chill the blood of anyone who cares about justice and public safety.

First, it means the monster who killed young Ashley Estell more than 14 years ago may very well be on the loose. That’s a terrifying possibility for those who remember the details of how 7-year-old Ashley was plucked from a Plano soccer field and strangled.

Second, the DA’s decision means Mr. Blair could have paid with his life for what appears to be a prosecution that should never have taken place. Hair tests that were crucial in sending him to death row were disproved by more advanced DNA results nearly six years ago. More DNA tests ruled out tissue beneath Ashley’s fingernails and, more recently, failed to establish a link between Mr. Blair and other items.

It would offend the memory of Ashley’s life if opponents of the death penalty – this newspaper included – used this opportunity to gloat about the faults of the justice system and potential for fatal error. After all, supporters of capital punishment will say that the system worked, that the appeals process succeeded in exposing the truth. They must concede, however, that in the absence of new forensic technology, the appeals would likely have accomplished nothing.

Let’s be clear: Mr. Blair is not a sympathetic character. He is a loathsome child molester who is serving consecutive life sentences for sex crimes. He will die in prison, and we’re glad he’s there.

Had he been executed instead, the quest for justice would have cheated an innocent child who met an unspeakably cruel death.

Mr. Roach is to be credited for a vigorous re-investigation of a slaying that inflamed this community like few others. At times his response to setbacks in the case appeared stubborn and grudging. But all parties should appreciate the directness of his statement in which he backed off the case against Mr. Blair.

For Ashley’s family’s sake, we hope there is something to show for Mr. Roach’s assertion that the case remains under investigation.

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