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.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/08/17/art.vert.ernest.sonnier.jpg caption="Ernest Sonnier was sentenced to life but was released from prison after 23 years because DNA testing proved he was wrongfully convicted." width=292 height=320]

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. Maerzie~Wisconsin, Michigan, Alabama

    Does this man get psychological counseling, money, a suitable job?? How does a sloppy investigation, incarceration, and stealing all these years of living and experience from a person EVER get compensated? Texas is the state too which lets "BAD COPS" transfer from agency to agency within the entire state without ever taking away their rights to being a policeman and they never share the personnel records or bad behavior with the next unsuspecting employers. Texas is LOADED with "BAD COPS"!!

    August 19, 2009 at 9:58 am |
  2. KE

    If I was him I would sue them for eveything he could get!!! His life will never be normal and he will never get those missing years back.

    August 19, 2009 at 9:00 am |
  3. falad cooper

    Justice prevails, very sad the wasted time of this innocent man.

    Highly admirable his patience and qualities that sustained him in prison 23 years.

    August 19, 2009 at 8:37 am |
  4. tal

    Do you know where can I reach CNN’s "AC 360" film deals with forensics and the case of Ernest Sonnier? is it available online??

    August 19, 2009 at 2:47 am |
  5. J.V.Hodgson

    Just who is going to be fired at this Lab and also severely reprimanded or demoted at the police offices.
    In a state that has the death penalty and executes higher numbers than most other states this is appalling.

    August 19, 2009 at 12:48 am |
  6. Marlene Petta

    Ace. All I'm trying to do is find some way to get real reality checking with you. It isn't anybody else's business, and all I'm trying to do is find a ay to communicate with you, not give our personal business away.
    And I love music, but unless i hear your voice I don't even know if your listening in on the radio. I have no idea how long it takes to set these things up, or if it's too much trouble with my son coming here Saturday and leaving the evening of the 27th. I was so angry because I just didn't understand why we could never be together, or talk on the phone. It all seemed as though you you were just playing games with me. I'm real needed right now, with a very poor support system which is normal after a divorce, so Ruth tell me- your friend just don't want to take sides or be in the middle, as if Tony ever had a life outside of me or work anyway. Unless I hear you voice or feel your touch, and I,m sure you have as much free time as I do (like none), and if I don't get up and moving in the morning, with all the phone calls I have to make all the time, I can't get anything done. It doesn't, or didn't, even occur to you me that you could be in love with me like I am with you, or I forget, and honestly still don't know for sure ( even if you are talking to me on TV, how do I know who you you, are eally talking to unless ypou put a name to it. You forgot what it's like to be an audience, or receiver of news. It just isn't about you. God forbid I should go a day without questioning the motive for everything, and whether or not I am even sane. I pray you love me for who I am too, and deeply understand that no one else is even capable of understanding or apprecicate me, let alone even getting my very dry sense of humor. Don't get me wrong, I love the staff and making people think and laugh and voicing my opinion, but I have so much on my plate right now. CNN these days, especially your show, is the way I keep up with the news, see you. but you have to concentate- you're working and I'm not. I'll always, if we can ever be together forever, be glad to be as much a part of your work and help you any way I can, but right now and in the pST i HAVE BECOME SO CONFUSED AND BEFUDDLED BY YOUR ACTIONS, EVEN MYSELF AND WHAT i NEED TO BE PRIOROTIZING, BUT THE CASE, but that's about all I can do with it right now. Unless you really ac find a way to tell me you feelings for me, and I don't just have totake pot shots at why we can't be together, I can't get my own head together and prioritize the rest of my life.

    I love you so much, but get so, so confused without a lot of ability to reality check. Please try to walk in my shoes and find a way to give me what I need, even if it's not what I want to hear. And my website right now is not safe either, but I'll fix it tomorrow. I love music, especially the old rock and roll, but was always very bad at these knd of guessing games, and when I start having to assume too much, am dangerous.

    August 19, 2009 at 12:36 am |
  7. Joseph

    As a Law Enforcement Officer in San Francisco who runs a program for DNA collections for those convicted or arrested for a felony, I'm glad the story broaden the scope of information as the intro to the story sounded very biased that all DNA/Forensic Science is "junk science." I guess to grab viewers attention. Yet, the story was good enough to clarify junk science when it referred to the issues in Houston. Does the Houston issue surprise anyone in the field? NO! I applaud the work of the Innocence Project: I have followed their progress for years. If I recall, there have been over a dozen individuals freed in Texas, wrongly convicted, when new DNA evidence cleared them. It has been said many times, the Innocence Project could set up a permanent office in Texas alone, and we should determine why that is. DNA has identified suspects, while freeing others. Any tool that comes along that makes Law Enforcement more effective, honest & open, can only be a good thing. Independent labs are a must in order to truly establish an objective perspective. Some may think this odd thinking from one in Law Enforcement, but there are many of us who think this way.

    August 18, 2009 at 11:59 pm |
  8. Kim

    Now what ? Amen and sue or is he moving on with his life after 22 years locked up innocent ? Imagine that ?

    August 18, 2009 at 11:13 pm |
  9. Ti

    How can DNA tests be a determining factor if the person is a chimera? It seems DNA tests can also fail to be a deterministic if the unexpected or unlikely situation (a chimera) is encountered?

    August 18, 2009 at 10:52 pm |
  10. Annie Kate

    DNA tests should be required to be run in a more expeditious manner so things like this do not happen. I hope that after 23 years in prison this man can adjust to life on the outside and can find a decent job and get on with enjoying life as a free man.

    August 18, 2009 at 7:08 pm |
  11. Charles

    I wanted to bring to your attention the case of Dr. Malachi Z. York who received a bogus 135 year sentence for crimes that he never committed. He has now been incarcerated for over 7 years and is ow housed in a supermax prison. This has just been swept under the rug. Just look at all of the evidence and you will see how those in power refused to see the truth and facts of this innocent man. It was a conspiracy just like the movie 'Indictment'. Witnesses have recanted their coerced testimonies but the courts still refused to hear the case of an innocent man who as done everything in his own power to always right the wrongs of this society. Just look at the evidence and see how this case has been a duplicate of the movie 'Indictment' The McMartin Trial, as well as the Waco incident involving the David Koresh stand off in Waco, Texas.

    August 18, 2009 at 6:28 pm |
  12. ruth

    Why don't you, the entire media, and anyone else that have an impact on people show the president the respect he deserves and earned. Set an example for our children to show that we respect our president by calling him President Obama and not Obama. I have heard senators, generals, captains, etc. with the proper title in front of their name. Even former presidents are stated as President Bush, President Clinton, etc. In my 48 years, there have been numerous presidents that I did not vote for nor like but I gave them the respect when it came to their title in front of their names.

    August 18, 2009 at 6:00 pm |
  13. Roderick Miller

    The arresting agency should be held accountable..and the united states of america... for wrongful conviction along with the prosecutors, the investigators, and the arresting agency.

    Police brutallity... Minnesota? Chicago, Missississippi..

    August 18, 2009 at 5:54 pm |
  14. Roderick Miller

    this happens all to often.. just this year the 200th death row inmate was released from prison for a crime they did not commit. DNA evidence proved this.
    The beatings and tazing of citizens and inmates are still common place among many police forces and jails.
    Jessie Lee Williams Jr. Beat to death at the Harrison County Adult Detention Center in Harrison county Mississippi.
    many other arrestees were beaten and injured by harrison county jailers and deputies for no reason..
    9 jailers plead guilty
    1 Jailer Life in Prison

    this is sad that our justice system allows the innocent to be convicted and the guilty to continue to be free.


    August 18, 2009 at 5:50 pm |
  15. corvedacosta

    Do we now use taxpayer monies to reimburse him? This is horrible and should not happen. Not in this timer where we are more sophisticated and have technology to assist the legal system. Some of us still get the bad end of the law.

    August 18, 2009 at 4:54 pm |
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