Michael Blair spent 14 years on Texas’ death row for a murder he has always maintained he didn’t commit before the state’s highest criminal court overturned his conviction yesterday based on DNA evidence of his innocence. Prosecutors joined with Blair’s defense team – which includes the Innocence Project – in requesting that the conviction be tossed after DNA test results also indicated that another man, now deceased, committed the crime. Blair now faces the prospect of a retrial in the case, but he will be officially exonerated of this crime if charges against him are dropped. In the meantime, he will be transferred from death row, but will remain in prison on three other sex assault convictions, for which he was sentenced to life.
Less than a year after Blair was sentenced to death, then-Governor George W. Bush signed “Ashley’s Laws,” named after the victim in the case, expanding punishment and registration for sex offenders. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said Blair’s wrongful conviction – and community’s rush to expand punishment in the wake of his case – illustrates serious flaws in the criminal justice system.
“Troubling questions about our criminal justice system are raised any time DNA testing shows that someone on death row is innocent,” Scheck said. “But in this case, the community rushed to judgment because Michael Blair had a record as a sex offender — while the apparent real perpetrator, who had no record, evaded justice. More than just an irony, this should give everyone pause about legislating or reaching court decisions based on community fear and outrage.
“This case starkly shows that the system makes mistakes, and that those mistakes can have chilling consequences. Michael Blair was almost executed for a crime that DNA testing shows he did not commit. Even more troubling is the reality that the kind of evidence that led to Michael Blair’s wrongful conviction is used in countless cases nationwide every day. Eyewitness misidentification and unreliable forensic science convicted Michael Blair, but DNA has finally shown the truth.”
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