Inmate who admitted rapes seeks compo
When Michael Blair was sent to death row for the infamous murder of a seven-year-old Texas girl, he insisted he never killed anyone. More than a decade later, genetic testing showed he was telling the truth.
But during those long years behind bars, Blair did something else that ensured he would never leave prison: He confessed to raping two other children - a crime for which he's serving multiple life sentences.
Blair hasn't forgotten the murder case, and now he's made an unlikely demand, asking the state for nearly US$1 million (NZ$1.2m) as compensation for being wrongfully convicted. His request has gone all the way to the Texas Supreme Court and is forcing a re-examination of laws designed to offer exonerated inmates a new start.
"He doesn't deserve a nickel of it," said Cory Session, whose brother, Tim Cole, was wrongfully imprisoned and had his name attached to the Texas law.
Blair "didn't deserve to be on death row for that crime, and we've proven that," Session said. "But he also doesn't deserve to receive compensation under the Tim Cole Act. He will soil my brother's name and memory."
The state comptroller has repeatedly denied Blair's claim, which a state attorney recently called "absurd." But if the court rules in his favor, the comptroller could be required to pay him US$80,000 (NZ$97,500) for each year he was locked up for the murder.
Blair's story began with the death of Ashley Estell, who disappeared from a football game in 1993 in suburban Dallas. A day later, she was found strangled by a roadside, and Blair was lurking around the scene.
He had been previously convicted of indecency with a child. Detectives found a stuffed rabbit toy, a knife and several samples of hair in Blair's car. A forensic expert later testified that hair from the car had a "strong association" with the young girl.
A jury took just 27 minutes to convict Blair. Lawmakers then passed "Ashley's Laws," which toughened restrictions on sex offenders.
While Blair was on death row, his attorneys pressed for new DNA testing. Blair asserted in media interviews and letters that he didn't kill Ashley. He said he was a rapist but not a murderer. And he said he had committed several sexual assaults that never resulted in charges.
After almost a decade, Blair made the same confession in a letter to the Collin County district attorney, admitting he had raped children in neighbouring Dallas before the murder occurred, according to attorneys who reviewed the letter. It was not available in Dallas County court files.
In 2003, the Dallas County district attorney used the letter to charge Blair with four counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Blair pleaded guilty the following year and received three consecutive life sentences without any promise that his death sentence would be overturned.
Three years later, new DNA testing excluded Blair in Ashley's slaying, and he was removed from death row. Instead of walking free as more than 100 exonerated people in Texas have done, Blair was moved to another prison unit to serve his life sentences.
Though he has almost no chance of leaving prison, his attorney, Roy Greenwood, said Blair could still use the money, particularly for medical fees charged by the prison system.
"He spent 10 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit," Greenwood said. "Why he pled guilty to these cases, I have no clue. We knew they were investigating him. But we had no idea."
Like many of the nearly 30 states that compensate inmates, Texas denies compensation to anyone who is serving time for multiple crimes at once and has one conviction overturned. It also denies annual payments beyond the initial lump sum and other benefits to exonerated inmates who then commit another crime.
But Greenwood argued last month before the state Supreme Court that the law doesn't specifically exclude someone like Blair, who was imprisoned on a wrongful conviction, then confessed to other crimes and had the first conviction thrown out.
Assistant Solicitor General Philip Lionberger argued that lawmakers intended the payments to help exonerated inmates re-establish their lives, not make a guilty convict "more comfortable while he spends his life in prison."
Asked by one justice why the state didn't just ban anyone in prison from getting money, Lionberger said lawmakers never imagined a case like Blair's.
"I don't think it ever occurred to the Legislature that we need to expressly spell this out," Lionberger said. "But I believe that the legislative intent is in the act, that a person like Mr Blair is not entitled to the compensation."
The Texas Supreme Court could rule sometime in the next few months.
Blair declined an interview request from The Associated Press.
If Blair is granted compensation, Session suggested Blair's victims could file a lawsuit or the state could seize the money to pay for his prison expenses.
Session, now the policy director of the state Innocence Project, said he also has talked to state lawmakers about changing the law next year to prevent anyone else from making a claim like Blair's.
But Jeff Blackburn, the state Innocence Project's chief counsel and another advocate for wrongful-conviction laws, said he believed Blair has a legitimate claim.
"I think we can all agree that nobody really likes the result in this case. But that's not the point," Blackburn said. "That time, in Michael Blair's life, was wrongfully taken from him, and the state should pay for it."