Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more about Ernest Sonnier's case on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.
Gary Tuchman | BIO
Ernest Sonnier was 23 when he was arrested and charged with rape and kidnapping. He was taken in handcuffs from his Houston home and didn't leave prison for another 23 years.
A week and a half ago, at the age of 46, Sonnier was freed after essentially being told by prosecutors, sorry – but we now inform you that DNA evidence we've just gotten around to checking indicates you did not commit this crime.
And get this – when the DNA that was examined was compared with other specimens in police possession, it came up positive for two other men already in the system. Men who are felons, but are no longer in prison.
As you wonder whether or not authorities will arrest those other men, we can tell you the answer is no. It won't happen because the statute of limitations has expired. That's just some of the discouraging news about this case.
Also discouraging, is this: Ernest Sonnier is now the sixth person to be freed from prison after allegations of shoddy work from the same crime laboratory, which is run by the Houston police. Over the years, the lab has been accused of ineptitude, corruption, and has even suffered flooding and water leakage which led to the corruption of genetic materials.
Now, the District Attorney, who is relatively new, has pledged that all cases that involved DNA in Houston will be reviewed. That means hundreds of cases will be re-examined. This all raises two serious questions: how many innocent people are behind bars because of poor lab work, and how many guilty people are not behind bars where they deserve to be?
Ernest Sonnier was identified by his victim in court in 1986. Prosecutors said lab tests showed hair found in the victim's vehicle was consistent with his. Shortly after Sonnier's trial, DNA testing became routine.
The DNA from the hair and bodily fluids found in the car and on the victim has been available for years. But the lab's backlog was endless, and there was no mechanism for verification. A national group that tries to help the wrongly convicted, the Innocence Project, got involved in Sonnier's case, and the testing was completed.
Sonnier, who has no idea how to operate a cell phone and marvels over satellite TV, is now a free man.
He says he will forgive, but he can't forget.
Sonnier is staying at home with his grateful mother and father. He hugs great nieces and nephews he has never been allowed to touch.
He has not officially been exonerated. He had a criminal record before his arrest (which likely diminished any credibility he might have had with police and prosecutors.) He is now on supervised release.
So the district attorney and her investigators say they will spend weeks or months investigating his past. But unless they find out something new, Ernest Sonnier will officially be cleared. And the real criminals will continue to count their lucky stars that Sonnier took the rap for them.
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