On September 5, 1993 seven-year old Ashley Estell
was abducted from a playground in Plano, Texas
as her parents sat nearby watching their son's soccer game. A few days later Ashley's body was found - she had been raped and murdered.
The man accused of the crime was a convicted sex offender -- Michael Blair. Blair's case became the catalyst for Ashley's Law, a package of tough sexual-predator measures in Texas requiring longer prison terms and public registration for sex offenders. Similar laws were enacted in many states across the USA.
The evidence against Michael Blair consisted of a few hairs and a small fiber. Prosecutors made the case that hairs found on Ashley's body were Blair's - and that hair found in his car belonged to Ashley. Further, they claimed that a fiber found on her body came from a stuffed animal found in the back of Blair's car. A jury took just 27 minutes to convict Blair of the murder. The same jury decided after 90 minutes of deliberations that Blair should be put to death and Blair was scheduled for execution (the initial execution date was July, 1999).
While in prison Blair admitted that he had sexually abused a dozen young boys and girls - most the children of his associates. It is difficult, if not impossible, to feel much sympathy for this man. In a rare 1999 interview from Texas' death row, Michael Blair gave reason why he probably won't become a cause célèbre
for anti-death penalty groups:
Michael Blair: I could tell you things that would give even you, a journalist, nightmares ... There were others, you know.
Journalist: Other what?
Michael Blair: Victims.
Journalist: Are they alive, these victims?
Michael Blair: Yes, they are all alive. I didn't kill them. I've already told you, I've never killed anyone. I sexually abused them ... I keep records on each one of my victims, their names, where they live, and how to get in touch with them.
But while admitting to being a child molester, Blair maintained he was innocent of killing Ashley. His attorneys appealed the case and his execution
was delayed. In the original trial the forensic hair evidence left such an indelible
impression that years later jurors who agreed to be interviewed cited it as among the most compelling proof
against Blair. Eventually advances in science made it possible to perform mitochondrial DNA
testing of the hair samples. Blair's lawyers wanted the tests performed, the State of Texas objected; the court ordered the DNA tests. The results were shocking:
Recent DNA testing confirmed that hairs found on the victim's body and hairs found in Blair's vehicle do not belong to either Blair or the victim. -- Jane Dees Shepperd, a spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General's office
But should the results have been shocking? Forensic
hair comparisons like those in Texas v. Blair
have been common in American courtrooms since the technique was first introduced in 1861. That 1861 hair comparison was persuasive enough to win a conviction, but a dubious Wisconsin
Supreme Court, ruled that "such evidence is of a most dangerous character," and overturned the conviction. More recently, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review
headlined a 1996 article on forensic hair comparison, "Nineteenth Century Science or Twentieth Century Snake Oil
?" Law enforcement studies have shown the practice is inaccurate anywhere from 27.6 to 67.8% of the time.
Forensic hair comparisons have been the basis for numerous convictions. Undoubtedly innocent men are behind bars due to this pseudo-science. Michael Blair still sits in a prison cell hoping for a new trial - having already escaped one date with the executioner. There is basically no other evidence against him. He may be guilty of despicable crimes, but he appears innocent, as he claimed all along, of the rape and murder of Ashley Estell - hard as that may be for some people to stomach.