Questions of innocence

Odell Barnes is just one of many inmates with questionable convictions facing the death penalty

Blair was convicted and sentenced to death, even though three other witnesses unrelated to him vouched for his alibi.

New evidence convincingly contradicts the state's evidence. One of the three witnesses who had seen Blair at the scene said Blair drove away at least an hour before the abduction. Another identified the man he saw as Hispanic and taller than himself (Blair is white and shorter). The third said he noticed the suspect standing alone on the field -- after the girl had been reported missing.

DNA analysis revealed that the hair in Blair's car was not the victim's, and scientific analyses of the other hairs and fibers either disproved the connection or were inconclusive. A Plano police detective testified that his supervisor had told him to destroy a police report because it might help Blair's attorneys. And a more likely suspect, when asked questions about the case during a deposition, took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer.

Gary Graham
Gary Graham


In March 1986 a gunman in a ski mask entered Just Marion and Lynn's nightclub in Houston a short time after midnight. He waved the bartender toward the cash register, then fled after apparently exchanging gunfire with bar owner Marion Elizabeth Pantzer, who died from a gunshot wound.

Several weeks later police arrested Roger McGowen, a small-time thug with a penchant for armed robbery. His fate at trial was sealed with a signed confession, which McGowen says was coerced by police.

McGowen's three sisters tried to contact his defense attorney, but he never called them back. They later testified that McGowen had been with them at a family function on the night of the murder.

Another witness testified that McGowen's brother had come to his door, saying he'd been shot while trying to rob "a place." Other witnesses added statements that implicated the brother and a cousin, who had been in the bar earlier in the evening.

Innocent or not, Barnes, Graham, Blair, and McGowen still have at least a theoretical chance for a reprieve. The same cannot be said of David Spence, who was executed in 1997 for killing three Waco teenagers. Spence, who became the subject of a Dateline NBC program, was indicted 17 months after the murders while serving time for aggravated sexual assault. A number of inmates testified at trial that he'd bragged of the crime.

Later, all seven witnesses to his alleged confession recanted, signing affidavits that they had been offered favors in exchange for their testimony. Two other men, who in exchange for leniency had stated that they were with Spence when the murders occurred, later said they had made it all up to save their necks. It took police five tries before they came up with a written confession they could run with, changing vehicles and other details to fit their scenario. And a possible suspect who had bragged to witnesses -- not inmates -- about the murders later told police he'd been watching Dynasty on television that night. The murder happened on a Tuesday. Dynasty aired on Wednesdays.

ó Bob Burtman

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