death penalty news—-TEXAS

May 24


Collin County district attorney says evidence doesn't link Blair to '93
killing of Ashley Estell

Collin County prosecutors made a rare about-face Friday and announced that
they may have sent the wrong man to death row for the 1993 kidnap-murder
of Ashley Estell.

A judge cleared the way for Michael Blair to get a new trial in the
high-profile slaying that prompted the Legislature to enact "Ashley's
Laws," which require better tracking and longer prison terms for sex

The hair evidence that supposedly linked Mr. Blair to the 7-year-old girl
has been disproved by DNA testing that was not available during Mr.
Blair's 1994 trial, and no other credible forensic evidence connects him
to the crime, District Attorney John R. Roach said Friday in a prepared

"There is no good-faith argument to support the current conviction in
light of the facts and the law as they now exist," the statement read. It
went on to say that the case remains under investigation.

"We're pleased that at least this part is over," Philip Wischkaemper, one
of the attorneys handling Mr. Blair's appeal, said after Friday's hearing
before visiting state District Judge Webb Biard. "The DNA evidence has
never linked Ashley Estell to Michael Blair."

Even if Mr. Blair is granted a new trial the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals still must confirm the judge's ruling and is found not guilty of
Ashley's murder, he will probably never be released from prison. He is
serving 3 consecutive life sentences for sex crimes involving children
that he admitted to in 2004.

Although the district attorney's office which joined the defense team's
request Friday for a new trial has the option of retrying Mr. Blair, a
University of Texas law professor said such a move is unlikely.

"If they believed they had irrefutable evidence, they would not agree to
the defense's motion" for a new trial, said UT-Austin's Jordan Steiker,
who also serves as co-director of the capital punishment center in Austin.
"This is tantamount to a confession that the record as it stands, along
with the new DNA evidence, is an insufficient basis on which to rest a
death sentence."

Mr. Steiker noted that it's easier for the district attorney to make this
sort of concession knowing that Mr. Blair will remain in prison on the
other charges.

John Rolater, chief of the Collin County district attorney's appellate
division, declined to comment on the likelihood of a new trial.

According to his prepared statement, Mr. Roach assembled a team of experts
in November 2006 that has since spent more than $47,000 and 5,000 hours
working on the case. The group identified another "person of interest" but
"has been unable to eliminate or conclusively connect this person" to the

In court documents obtained by WFAA-TV (Channel 8), Collin County
investigators detailed that man's suspicious behavior after Ashley's

The man, who was not identified by authorities, joined the Estells'
church, bought a funeral plot close to Ashley's grave and created a
scrapbook of information about and photographs of Ashley. He had no
criminal background but had been labeled a sociopath by a doctor. The man
is now dead.

Other DNA tests

Last year, DNA tests cleared a man who was refereeing a soccer game at
Plano's Carpenter Park when Ashley disappeared from there 15 years ago.
The convicted sex offender uses several aliases, including Josh Crowley.

The admission that Mr. Blair cannot be linked to the crime is a stunning
reversal from just a year ago, when prosecutors were still maintaining
that the convicted child molester lured Ashley away from the park and
killed her.

During his 1994 trial, 2 witnesses testified they saw Mr. Blair at the
park the morning Ashley disappeared, and 2 people said they saw him at the
spot where Ashley's body was dumped.

But those witnesses and the forensic evidence against his client didn't
deter Mr. Wischkaemper. He has been working on Mr. Blair's appeal since
1996 with the support of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal center
in New York that has used DNA evidence to exonerate many inmates.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, issued a statement
about the implications of Friday's developments.

"Today, the prosecution finally agreed that Michael Blair's capital
conviction should be overturned. As a result, Michael Blair's conviction
will likely be vacated and he will be exonerated from death row, though he
will remain in prison for other crimes," according to the statement.

No one in the Estell family has talked publicly about the case since
Ashley's death in 1993. Her father, Richard Estell, could not be reached
for comment Friday.

Ashley's Laws

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, built her political career reforming
sex offender laws, first sponsoring legislation that became known as
Ashley's Laws in 1995. The package of bills required that information on
sex offenders be public and has been expanded over the years to establish
1,000-foot "safe zones" around places children gather.

Ms. Shapiro, who did not return calls Friday, has said that her outrage
over Mr. Blair's early release from prison for a prior child sex offense
led her to become an advocate for sex offender reform and to name the laws
after the girl he was convicted of killing.

Mr. Blair's half sisters are not close to their brother. But both said
Friday they were satisfied that Mr. Blair probably would not be put to
death for a crime he didn't commit.

"I suppose if he didn't do it, that's a good thing," Amanda Carlson said
from her Minnesota home. "All along, profilers have said that for him to
go and do something like that, he'd familiarize himself with the girl.
Just to snatch a child out of the blue was not him."

Ms. Carlson said she remembers as a child being molested by her older
brother. So she holds no sympathy for him or the fact that he'll remain in
prison for other crimes.

Their youngest sister, Tera Carlson, has exchanged letters with Mr. Blair
and is hopeful that the positive change she's noticed in recent letters
from him is real. He has been listening to Christian radio, she said, and
he encourages other inmates to do the same.

"He'll probably be glad to know that people actually believe he didn't do
it," Tera Carlson said by phone from Wisconsin. "Of course, there will
still be people who won't ever believe it, especially the family of that

(source: Dallas Morning News)


Michael Blair case unravels

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 6 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.

(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)