On September 4, 1993, seven-year-old Ashley Estell was kidnapped from Carpenter Park in Plano, Texas, while with her family at her older brother’s soccer game. Her body was found the next day by a roadside. She had been strangled.
Michael Blair was brought in for questioning several days later, when two Plano Police Department evidence technicians noticed his car while working in the area where the victim’s body was found. They followed Blair as he drove away and conducted a traffic stop. Blair said he had volunteered to assist in the search for the victim and wanted to see the location where the body was found. During a 10-hour interrogation, Blair repeatedly denied involvement in the crime.
Blair, who had a prior sexual offense conviction, quickly became the lead suspect in this case. Three eyewitnesses told police they saw him in the park that day, although two admitted they had seen Blair’s photo on TV before identifying him to police. No witnesses ever claimed to see Blair and Estell together.
Blair was arrested on September 14, and charged with capital murder. He was tried by a jury in 1994. In addition to eyewitness testimony, the prosecution based its case on microscopic comparisons of hairs and fibers found on Blair, Estell, and in Blair’s car. Experts testified that hairs found in Blair’s car were similar to Estell’s hair, and that the chemical makeup of fibers from a stuffed animal in Blair’s car resembled fibers found on the victim’s body, with only “subtle differences.” The jury deliberated for 27 minutes before convicting Blair. He was sentenced to death.
Blair was scheduled to be executed in July, 1999, but was granted a stay until more sophisticated DNA testing could be performed on the forensic evidence used in Blair’s conviction. Testing began in 2001. Results provided no evidence that Blair had been at the scene of the crime, and contradicted the hair comparison used to convict Blair. Human tissue found under Estell’s fingernails did not match Blair, and testing conducted on the victim’s clothing pointed to the possible involvement of another man, now deceased, who was also a suspect at the time of crime.
In light of this new evidence, Collin County prosecutors asked a trial court judge to vacate Blair’s conviction, and then dismissed the charges against him in August 2008. Blair was removed from death row, but remains in prison serving a life sentence for an unrelated crime to which he confessed and pled guilty.
In 1995, then-Governor George W. Bush signed “Ashley’s Laws,” named after the victim in the case, which expanded punishment and registration for sex offenders. Ironically, this law is named after a case in which the suspect’s record as a sex offender misled the police, while the apparent real perpetrator, who had no record, evaded justice.
Blair is seeking compensation from the state of Texas for his wrongful conviction.
– Alexandra Gross