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Parsing Just Compensation for Wrongful Convictions

• November 14, 2012 • 3:31 PM

Sue Russell’s nine-piece look at wrongful convictions didn’t include two cases in the news this week, those of Lynn DeJac Peters or Michael Blair, but it could have.  Both are instances of mistakes by the prosecution that were remedied years later by the application of technology.

DeJac Peters’ case fits in the conventional wrongful conviction narrative arc. She spent 14 years in prison after a jury found her guilty of strangling her 13-year-old daughter, Crystallyn M. Girard, in 1993. Her freedom came following a new autopsy, which pointed to cocaine overdose and not strangulation, as the cause of death, plus DNA evidence that suggested Peters’ ex-boyfriend had been in Crystallyn’s bedroom. That former boyfriend is now in prison for the murder of another woman, whose body was found in the same position as Peters’ daughter. On top of that, at the time of the killing, investigators took a vaginal swab from the teen but apparently never tested it for evidence of sexual assault. It still hasn’t been tested but prosecutors suspect it will point back to the ex-boyfriend.

Earlier this week, DeJac Peters reached a $2.7 million settlement with the state of New York. I’m not sure many people would begrudge her the settlement or the sense of vindication that must come with it.

Blair’s case has similarities. He was arrested after he was seen in the vicinity of where the strangled  body of a 7-year-old, Ashley Estell, was found on a Texas roadside, also in 1993. Investigators gathering forensic evidence from his car found several strands of hair; one expert from the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences would later testify there was a “strong association” between those locks and the victim, while an FBI expert would argue that fibers from a stuffed animal in his car “most resembled” fibers found on Ashley’s body. Blair, who protested his innocence, was convicted and packed off to death row.

Almost a decade later, DNA tests done over six years ruled out Blair as the killer, and he was formally cleared in 2008. Per the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals:

“The post-conviction DNA results and the evidence discovered in the State’s new investigation have substantially eroded the State’s trial case against [applicant]. This new evidence in light of the remaining inculpatory evidence in the record, has established by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted [applicant] in light of newly discovered evidence.”

Given this, Blair asked for roughly a million dollars in compensation, $80,000 a year he was behind bars on that wrongful conviction. So far he’s been denied at every step, and now he’s asking the Texas Supreme Court to help him out.

Given the similarities between DeJac Peters and Blair, can we argue against his even more modest requested settlement?

With apologies to Paul Harvey, now for the rest of his story. When Blair was apprehended after the killing, he already had a rap sheet as a sex offender. And while he was locked up for killing Ashley, Blair admitted to raping two other children, offenses for which he received life sentences. In short, Blair argues along  these lines: ‘Yes, I was a child rapist, but I’m no child killer. So pay me what’s due under the Tim Cole Act, and you can stop the meter running in 2004 when I was convicted of those rapes.”

Since Blair was an unattractive candidate for a second look, props to Texas for reviewing and then overturning his conviction. Do those same features mean he shouldn’t receive compensation—after all his rapes occurred before he was ever locked up. Or does legal required compensation accrue even to the reprehensible? Whether you’re an expert on Texas jurisprudence and the Cole act or not, what do you think?

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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