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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Lawyer: New DNA Testing Clears Blair

This article appeared in the Dallas Morning News on October 17, 2006:

Lawyer: New DNA testing clears Blair
Inmate convicted of '93 Ashley Estell killing seeks hearing


By ED HOUSEWRIGHT
The Dallas Morning News

Michael Blair, convicted of killing 7-year-old Ashley Estell in 1993, is arguing that new DNA evidence proves he is innocent of the crime that spawned new laws against sex offenders.

Phil Wischkaemper, Mr. Blair's attorney, filed a motion in Collin County that contends new DNA technology, which didn't exist at the trial in 1994, shows that tissue found under Ashley's fingernails did not come from Mr. Blair.

"Given the nature of this evidence ... his actual innocence can hardly be disputed," said Mr. Wischkaemper, who practices law in Lubbock.

The motion asks state District Judge Nathan White Jr. to hold a hearing on the DNA findings, which Mr. Wischkaemper said could lead to a new trial for Mr. Blair, a death-row prison inmate.
The Collin County district attorney's office is reviewing the motion and awaiting the judge's decision, county spokeswoman Leigh Hornsby said. She said the office has no other comment.
Even if Mr. Blair were granted a new trial and found not guilty, he would never be freed from prison because he is serving lengthy sentences for other sex crimes.

In 2004, Mr. Blair pleaded guilty to four charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child. He received three consecutive life prison sentences.

Mr. Blair has never received an execution date in the Estell case.

"As long as he's under the sentence of death, the state could execute him," Mr. Wischkaemper said.

The Estell murder generated nationwide publicity.

Ashley disappeared from a Plano playground Sept. 4, 1993. Her parents were watching her older brother play soccer on an adjacent field.

Ashley's body was found the next day beside a rural road about six miles away.

After Mr. Blair's arrest, authorities found that he had been paroled in 1990 after serving 18 months of a 10-year sentence for burglary and indecency with a child.

Mr. Blair always has denied kidnapping and killing Ashley. Nonetheless, lawmakers and the public greeted him and the crime with outrage.

Ashley's slaying prompted new Texas laws that require longer prison terms for repeat sex offenders and better tracking once they are released.

Barry Scheck, a high-profile attorney who was part of O.J. Simpson's defense team, has monitored Mr. Blair's case for the last six years, Mr. Wischkaemper said.

Mr. Scheck founded the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic and criminal resource center, in New York in 1992. Through DNA testing, it has exonerated 184 people who were wrongly convicted.

"Most of our clients are poor, forgotten, and have used up all of their legal avenues for relief," according to the Innocence Project's Web site.

During Ashley's autopsy, examiners clipped her fingernails and kept them as evidence. The DNA tests on those fingernail clippings bolsters previous DNA evidence that supports Mr. Blair's claim of innocence, Mr. Wischkaemper said.

At Mr. Blair's trial, a prosecution expert testified that hair similar to Mr. Blair's was found on Ashley's body and that hair similar to Ashley's was found in Mr. Blair's car.

In 2002, eight years after his trial, those hair samples underwent DNA testing and were found not to belong to Mr. Blair or Ashley.

"I think every time we find a lack of a link between Michael Blair and Ashley Estell, we put another nail in the coffin of the state's case," Mr. Wischkaemper said. "I don't think it can survive many more hits like this."

He said the new DNA testing shows that the tissue samples came from at least two different men – neither of which was Mr. Blair.

He said he might know the source of the DNA.

"I think I have an idea, but I can't really speculate right now," Mr. Wischkaemper said.
The Collin County district attorney's office has said it gathered enough other evidence against Mr. Blair besides the hair samples and was prepared to retry him.

During Mr. Blair's 1994 capital murder trial, prosecutors called witnesses who testified that they saw him at the playground the day Ashley disappeared. Prosecutors also told jurors that Mr. Blair tried to join the search for her and visit the site where her body was found.

The defense, however, argued that witnesses placed Mr. Blair at the soccer park only after they saw his photo in media stories about the crime. No one claimed to have seen him and Ashley together.

Jurors took only 27 minutes to find Mr. Blair guilty and 90 minutes to sentence him to death.
Mr. Blair's conviction has been appealed to federal court, then remanded back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and later to the trial court, the 366th State District Court in Collin County.

Since Mr. Blair's conviction, Ashley Estell's parents have declined comment. And they held true to form Tuesday.

"We've declined to comment for 13 years, and I would just as soon keep it that way," said Richard Estell, Ashley's father.

Mr. Blair has other defenders besides his attorneys. Dr. Linda Norton, a forensics expert, testified that she thinks he is not guilty.

Ashley was killed a few hours after her abduction, then her body was kept at room temperature until nightfall when it was dumped, according to Dr. Norton's analysis.

Mr. Blair drove a hatchback and lived with two roommates, so it seems unlikely he could have stored a body for several hours, Dr. Norton testified.

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