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August 17th, 2009
11:12 PM ET

Innocent man freed from prison after 23 years

Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more about Ernest Sonnier's case on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

Ernest Sonnier was sentenced to life but was released from prison after 23 years because DNA testing proved he was wrongfully convicted.

Ernest Sonnier was sentenced to life but was released from prison after 23 years because DNA testing proved he was wrongfully convicted.

Gary Tuchman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

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.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Crime & Punishment • Gary Tuchman
soundoff (265 Responses)
  1. PL

    How can DNA come up positive for "two other men"

    August 17, 2009 at 1:48 pm |
  2. Ronnie

    This happened in Texas. Is this any surprise to anyone? Racism and corruption run hand in hand there. So glad I got out of there when I did.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:47 pm |
  3. Tim

    I want to know is how the person that got raped Identified him as the rapist. was she blind or is she one of those they say they all look alike is bs. I also dont think that the staute of limitations should be in affect here. the reason they ran out is because for 23 year an innocent man was doing the time for their crime. they should still be held accountable for there crime of rape. did i read the articll right there was 2 dna samples for two convicted felons that are now out. got to love our legal system.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:47 pm |
  4. Free

    How many does that make in the last year? Yes, they are mostly men of color. Check into the Ely Nevada prison system. Many young black boys on death row. That prison is so corrupt that men take early execution just to be free of the "Boss Hogg Warden" that runs his own game there!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:46 pm |
  5. Pat

    This is a complete and inexcuseable disgrace!!!! If the accused were related to the District Attorney (his brother; or nephew) I wonder how quickly things would have moved then. I hope this gentleman is compensated substantially for spending half his life in prison because the "system" is overwhelmed. Shame on all of you.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm |
  6. Kalani

    Even 23 million dollars won't undo the harm of 23 lost years; however, if I were to award for damages and harm I would gladly make the agency pay that!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:43 pm |
  7. Carmichael

    This is a legal and judicial issue, but as usual there's always someone ready to cry "Racism!" any time anything happens in this country.

    In order to work objectively–or give that impression–laws are set up to minimize interpretation as much as possible, which opens the door to ridiculous technicalities and loopholes that lead to absurd verdicts because they eliminate COMMON SENSE from any proceeding.

    Case in point: the criminals whose DNA implicates them in this crime will not be charged because of a law that sets a statue of limitations. Once again, technicalities win over common sense and justice.

    What happened to this man is outrageous, and he should be compensated somehow. However, the prosecutor is not necessarily to blame unless he knew the guy was innocent but pushed for a conviction anyway just to have someone to put in jail. Was the suspect identified by the victim as being the rapist? If that's the case, then the victim is to blame. Otherwise, the judicial system and its shortcomings are responsible.

    Carmichael
    Houston

    August 17, 2009 at 1:42 pm |
  8. MN Nice

    FIle a wrongful conviction suit against the system. Then file a suit against the true rapists.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:41 pm |
  9. Bill

    This is another prime example as to why eye witness testimony should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Once again, another victim who swears under oath that they can identify their assailant, when in fact they cannot.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:41 pm |
  10. Doug

    This once again proves that the death penalty should be repealed. Too many mistakes by people with political agendas or perhaps just too much work to do. Hopefully there will be some sort of compensation which might ease this mans suffering a bit.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:40 pm |
  11. wowwiepop

    I have a generic question that pertains to people who were convicted and later, as science advances, set free. Why would a person be able to sue the state? In our judicial system, the judge sits in as lawyers prove or disprove cases with the evidence that is supplied. A jury of our peers are the defining factor in the results of these cases. So why can a person that was conviced by a jury of his/her peers sue the government years later for a decision that was reached by citizens? Isn't it part of the appeals process for defense lawyers to look for new evidence to prove their clients innocence and if they succeed, then freedom is the reward. It's unfortunate that a person is convicted of a crime they didn't commit, but their lawyers take the responsibility to prove their clients innocence, they should be the ones sued not the state.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:40 pm |
  12. Tom

    lot's of bad busts in Texas.....instead of checking his background, how about rounding up the real criminals identified in the DNA match? What's wrong with our system if this can happen?

    August 17, 2009 at 1:40 pm |
  13. PC in NJ

    Gary Tuchman, the reporter, says "This all raises two serious questions:... " You left one out... how many innocent people has Texas killed? I agree with those that say the people in law enforcement, the judicial wing, the labs, etc., should bear responsiblilty for their wrongdoings. You send a man/woman to prison for 1 day or 30 years and you are wrong, you should bear the same penalty as you caused on an innocent person. Why should govt people get a get-out-of-jail-free card? Why do only they get a freebie? Look at the damage they do. Where is the responsibility? Where is the credibility? It is criminal to destroy people's lives and take years from them and irripairably defame that person's character. People who gyp the government out of a few bucks on a ticket, fine, taxes, whatever, are made to pay dearly. True, they did the crime, but so did the people who hurt the innocent for whatever reason, whether it be ineptitude, unreliability, corruption, vengeance, or just plain "who cares" attitudes. Where is their remuniration? Why don't we reward the innocents from these people's assets? Why don't we sue to get back all the money we paid them for not doing their job? Where are all those wonderful checks and balances? We know what has happened, and we know it is still going on, so why don't we stop it? Grrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:38 pm |
  14. kent

    The state should take care of this man and his needs for the rest of his life....since, they killed so many yrs of his. Our wonderful legal system drags it's heels with overzealous prosecuters, looking to pat themselves on the back with a boost to their wallets. This being done with no real concern of justice. It's pretty much the same for the congressman and judges that allow this to go on and on and on.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:37 pm |
  15. Cyniq

    Except for the picture, I see no evidence of racism in the story. We are quick to make this assumption. What I see is the police/prosecutor being negligent in the witness identification process and their comfort in the man's previous record as a justification for not looking too hard at his case later. Thank God for the Innocence Project. They should get a state grant every time they succeed in proving someone wrongly convicted.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:36 pm |
  16. Siegbert Tarrasch

    Our legal system has its head so far up its own rectum that it does not matter anymore whether this guy is innocent or not! Who knows!!?? One thing is for sure though; the moment that OUR STUPID LEGAL SYSTEM says someone's guilty, another part of it will say they're innocent and then another will say guilty and back and forth FOREVER! Our legal system ALSO needs reform; we need to introduce some brains and integrity back into the POS!! Remember that these are the same people who ALMOST released a self-confessed and confirmed serial killer (Coral Watts); and NO, it wasn't a typo; they knew who/what was going to be released, but they were going to anyway because of a CHAIN of IDIOTIC things that the IDIOTIC people in our IDIOTIC legal system did!!!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:35 pm |
  17. n

    The third question from Anderson Cooper should be "How many innocent people have been put to death in this country?" Our system is not good enough to determine that someones life should end.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:33 pm |
  18. kar

    i would just like to know how many white people have been done like this all i ever see are black men after 23 years of this man life has been taken away from him for something he did not do why is it that i never see a white man with 23 years of his life being taken away...why is this why...

    August 17, 2009 at 1:30 pm |
  19. Tom

    These types of errors are why we should abolish the death penalty.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:30 pm |
  20. nell

    this is sad..this man has wasted 23 years of his life. i agree with ace, he should be compensated. imagine how low lost one must feel. the whole world has been moving except him...sad just purely sad

    August 17, 2009 at 1:29 pm |
  21. Joe

    Another rich man by the age 40 plus. I hope he can overcome his stability in life that was crushed by some over zealous court prosecutor. Hopefully someone can be charged with this .

    August 17, 2009 at 1:24 pm |
  22. peter peterman iii

    so the victim identified the man as the perp, but the dna doesn't match. there has to be more to this story then you're reporting, you indicated some of the dna was contaminated, is that why the accused's dna doesn't match perhaps. is it possible he is the perp after all, but the only proof now is tainted, so he must be released upon the review. What does the victim say now about her previous id. Come on, what ever happened to telling the whole story, you talk about bad law enforcement, think about bad reporting and journalism.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:24 pm |
  23. Harrison Pannella

    In stories about wrongful imprisonment such as Mr. Sonnier's, It would be useful to the public dialogue to hear about the general policies and case-specific expectations regarding a jurisdiction's responsibilities to compensate those wrongfully imprisoned. This is something that is rarely reported but needs to be. There are wide disparities in this regard among the states, with some having little or no requirement for compensation.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:23 pm |
  24. M

    Dennis and L, I couldn't agree more. Why aren't they being held liable for destroying someones life due to them being lazy and racist. ?

    August 17, 2009 at 1:23 pm |
  25. GatorBoots

    This really hardened the heart, however should move the spiritual aspects of an individual. Although 23 years is hard to regain, with what time he has left, lets hope that he uses it to the best of his ability. As for the Houston Crime Lab, please get it together. Technology has came to far, for you all to be lagging within the stone ages. Mr. Sonnier and family, be Blessed.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:22 pm |
  26. Lawrence Leavell

    What about some stimulus money applied here?
    This is only one of many such cases to attract public attention in the past few years. It stands to reason there are hundreds more cases, people who deserve our attention.
    Thousands of cases need to be reviewed and time is the enemy of justice not properly served.
    How many DNA tests nationwide are waiting to be completed? How many of these will identify the true perpetrators?
    Is it embarrassment that is discouraging our public officials from clearing up the backlog? How does this weigh against the incorrect and unjust verdicts of those waiting for their *true* and fair day in court?

    August 17, 2009 at 1:22 pm |
  27. Gina

    Why are they investigating his background? He didn't do the crime. Leave the man alone. Let him be with his family. ANything he did 23 years ago should be considered "paid in full" with the 23 years he spent for a crime he didn't commit.

    And an I'm sorry would hurt either. Thank you Innocense Project, and the Houston crime lab should be shut down and padlocked. They have the WORST reputation. I wouldn't trust an eye test from that place!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:21 pm |
  28. Erika

    Man – Where is the justice! Houston's Crime Lab should be under investigation! I am sure Mr. Sonnier wasn't an angel as stated he had a prior record- but he did NOT deserve to rot in prison over this crime he clearly did NOT commit. I would sue too!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:19 pm |
  29. Tim Parent from Levittown PA

    The problem with the prisons is they're filled with innocent people. How does one even beging to weed out the ones who really are innocent? It's a monumental task, and in the meantime you have guys like this or worse, guys who get executed for crimes they didn't commit. Imagine getting the needle knowing you're innocent! Horrifying.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:18 pm |
  30. zeek

    couldnt agree more miss alex

    August 17, 2009 at 1:17 pm |
  31. LilRdVet2

    I think the people who are actually guilty, by proof of the DNA match should be named, even though they can no longer be prosecuted! Mr. Sonnier deserves that much!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:17 pm |
  32. Jessica

    WOW! This is absolutely horrible! And they way they still look at this poor man like he was guilty, having to still monitor him after the fact? These people in that area all need to be fired, everyone from the prosecutors, to the local police, to the prison! Hey, he will get his revenge though and live the high life for the rest of his days, after he wins numerous civil suits against everyone involved...including the victim who apparently identified him in court as the attacker!!?!?!?!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:14 pm |
  33. Curious

    Slightly off-topic:
    Shouldn't the statute of limitations and potential prison terms be similar? For example, if Sonnier had committed the crime, he would still be serving time, right? So why is it that if the real perpetrators can avoid being caught during a shorter statute of limitations they can't be prosecuted? If the crime is bad enough for someone to serve a prison term of X years, then the statute of limitations should be at least X years, shouldn't it? Or is the crime not as bad if the perpetrators aren't caught?

    August 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm |
  34. Liddyy

    In all seriousness, having the police control the DNA lab instead of neutral state agency is the problem.
    Also what is going ot happen to all those corrupt lab testers and police officers? Anything?

    August 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm |
  35. Candylyn

    The victim will never have justice.
    This gentlemen will never get back those 23 years. He may never get a job either. When applying for a job they ask if you were convicted of a felony and allow you to explain but just answering yes will make many employers think twice regardless of the situation. Here is the kicker, we have mandated laws on how long someone convicted of a crime should stay in jail but nothing on what the government should do if that person is later found not guilty/innocent.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:11 pm |
  36. Reflecting_Pool

    Why am I not, in the least, surprised that this is yet another Texas case? This is the product of a stunted, demented legal justice system mentality that says, "Shoot them all, guilty and innocent alike, and let God sort them out." Why does it not surprise me that precisely this same bankrupt mentality occupied the White House for eight years of the Bush administration? The similarities are uncanny. They both have absolutely no respect for the Truth or the integrity of the evidence they use to hide the Truth. If you live east of the Mississippi and you plan to visit California, be sure to drive around the state of Texas. Especially if you're black or hispanic.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:09 pm |
  37. kat

    That's crazy..

    August 17, 2009 at 1:07 pm |
  38. cheflaszlo

    only in America?

    August 17, 2009 at 1:07 pm |
  39. MISS ALEX

    This really makes me mad! There are a lot of innocent people in prison and the cops and prosecutors know it!! But its too costly to 'look into it" or my favorite, "if someone is in prison, then they probably deserve to be there". I say those who knowingly arrest and prosecute an innocent person, should be either made to do the same time or pay out of their pocket any monies given the falsely accused. But the America justice system was built on racism (against poor, people of color, I just don't like you, etc) so it will never – ever work. And the longer it's allowed to continue, it will get worse and the less respect law enforcement and the judicial system will get!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:04 pm |
  40. ACE

    JUST ANOTHER BLACK MAN DONE WRONG BY THE SYSTEM.I CANNOT EVEN BEGIN TO IMAGINE THIS SCENERIO. MAYBE IN A MOVIE. HE SHOULD BE COMPENSATED FOR HIS WRONGFUL PROSECUTION AND THE MORE THAN HALF HIS LIFE THAT HAS BEEN TAKEN AWAY FROM HIM

    August 17, 2009 at 1:01 pm |
  41. Angy

    This is one of many reasons I have in supporting the death penalty. The Criminal Justice System is a system ran by people who we expect to have the highest level of ethical standards and performance that is above reproach. The problem is people make mistakes, miscalcuations and errors be it intentionally or not. Is is because of human error that a man was wrongfully convicted and had to endure a harsh penalty. 23 years in prison. The thing is we are quick to make a error with lies, inuendo and unreliable witness testimony but the system moves like a sloth in the winter when it comes to apologizing and correcting errors and injustices. Mr Sonnier had the privilege of surviving long enought to see victory but what about those who died while appeals were in process... What about them???

    August 17, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
  42. L

    This is what we call a damn shame!! This innocent "black man" in jail for 23 years for nothing!! I think theselaw enforcement agencies should be held responsible for their actions in matter (prison sentences) I pray for Ernest and his family. Nobody should have to go through this nobody!

    August 17, 2009 at 12:57 pm |
  43. GlennInHouston

    Can you believe letting someone else take the fall for you? What can you expect from a rapist though.

    August 17, 2009 at 12:57 pm |
  44. Fernando

    these review of cases should be accelerated 10 times fold.
    DNA analysis is not new, and these innocent people are just being release. Justice is not really Justice if it is delay so much.
    Good for Ernest in this case. I hope for him a fast adjustment to the real World.

    August 17, 2009 at 12:48 pm |
  45. David

    I wonder how many innocent prison languish in prison especially black men? My rage would be tremendous towards the people who placed me in prison for a crime I did not commit.

    August 17, 2009 at 12:48 pm |
  46. Day

    How is this acceptable? The legal system is ripe with mandatory minimums and statutory processes so overwhelming most average citizens are afraid to defend themselves against a parking violation. Why aren't there mandatory safe guards for when the players get it wrong, like when a DA with holds evidence or the state-city run lab is having a bad year or when an "eye witness" should have been wearing glasses. We get one chance at this life. As a free society we should respect all life enough to have a contingency plan for the inevitable human failures in the legal system.

    August 17, 2009 at 12:46 pm |
  47. Daniel Kinsman

    This is the argument against the death penalty.

    August 17, 2009 at 12:44 pm |
  48. Dennis

    When the police and prosecutor are inept enough to convict a person later to be proved innocent , they should be the ones to serve the jail/prison sentence. This should help weed out the extremly poor law inforcement we have in this country.

    August 17, 2009 at 12:42 pm |
  49. Dan G

    And people say Health Care shouldn't be our only concern...

    August 17, 2009 at 12:25 pm |
  50. Cindy

    No type of science is exact. I'm sure there are many people that have been wrongly convicted for things they didn't do. Unfortunately in this case it looks like the DA's office just took their own sweet time in really looking at the DNA evidence. 23 years is a long time to sit waiting for justice to prevail. Hopefully Mr. Sonnier can go on with his life and not let anger ruin it. But I would sue them if I was him...just sayin..

    Cindy..Ga.

    August 17, 2009 at 11:21 am |
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