By JEFF CARLTON
DALLAS -- A court threw out the conviction of a man infamously known as "Ashley's Killer" on Wednesday, weeks after prosecutors surprised defense attorneys with news of another suspect in the 1993 child slaying.
The Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, as expected, set aside the guilty verdict and death sentence given to Michael Blair, upholding a lower-court ruling made last month.
The ruling comes less than a month after prosecutors acknowledged that DNA evidence did not implicate Blair and showed that another man, now deceased, is a plausible suspect in the girl's death.
That man, identified in court papers only as Suspect No. 4, learned where 7-year-old Ashley Estell was buried and bought a plot for himself as close as he could get to her grave. He's been dead at least 10 years, according to court documents that didn't make it clear whether he was buried in the plot he purchased. Colleen County prosecutors declined to comment, a spokesman said.
Blair, now 38, was convicted in 1994 of strangling and molesting Ashley in suburban Dallas. Her body was found in a remote area of Collin County on Sept. 5, 1993, a day after she disappeared from a Plano park where her brother was playing soccer.
Her death prompted state lawmakers to pass tough sexual-predator measures called "Ashley's Laws" requiring longer prison terms and public registration for sex offenders.
Despite the ruling, Blair will remain in prison. While behind bars, he confessed and eventually pleaded guilty to sexual assaults of other children in the early 1990s. He was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences and a fourth to be served concurrently, according to court documents.
Blair is expected to be removed from death row and returned to the general prison population, said his attorney, Roy Greenwood. Blair has been on death row in Huntsville since his conviction 14 years ago.
Collin County prosecutors are expected to drop the charges against Blair, Greenwood said.
Though Collin County prosecutors weren't talking Wednesday, a filing last month hinted at their intentions when they wrote that "no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of newly discovered evidence."
"For all intents and purposes, they have admitted they can't retry him," Greenwood said. "So I expect they would dismiss the case against him."
State Sen. Florence Shapiro, who championed "Ashley's Laws," issued a statement saying the tougher sex-offender laws passed in the girl's name "stand as strong today as they ever have. From 1995 until today, these laws forever changed the way the State of Texas deals with these heinous crimes."
The Collin County District Attorney's Office surprised Greenwood last month by revealing that it had reinvestigated Ashley's death, spending about 5,000 work hours and nearly $50,000 since November 2006.
"They fought us tooth, hair and toenail for 12 years, and we anticipated they would be fighting us when this hearing was scheduled," Greenwood said.
Blair was convicted largely on the strength of since-discredited testimony about hair and fibers found in his car, on a stuffed animal and on the girl's body that all purportedly matched, court records show. At the time of the slaying, Blair was on parole after serving only 18 months of a 10-year sentence for burglary and indecency with a child.
Subsequent testing was performed on male DNA found on the Plano girl's shoes and shirt, as well as on tissue taken from the victim's fingernails and hair. All of these DNA tests excluded Blair as the contributor, court records show.
In November 2006, Collin County reopened its investigation, assigning it to a cold case squad. That led to the discovery of Suspect No. 4, who was not targeted by local police in the initial investigation.
The cold case investigators learned that Suspect No. 4 falsely told people he had a child who was abducted from a park, killed and dumped on a gravel road -- circumstances similar to those in Ashley's death. The man resembled Blair, who once was detained by police while he was watching children play at a soccer field and kept a scrapbook about Ashley's case.
Investigators also discovered that Suspect No. 4 joined Ashley's church and moved into an apartment near her school and her parents' home, court records show.
DNA testing shows that this suspect cannot be excluded as a contributor of male DNA found on Ashley's right shoe, according to prosecutors.
Blair becomes the 33rd wrongly convicted person in Texas since 2001 to be cleared by DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions. He is the 17th death row inmate nationally to be exonerated by DNA evidence.