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. Richard

    Yet another clear cut example of how fallible both eye witness testimony AND forensic evidence can be. Both involve the HUMAN ELEMENT which is where things usually go afoul. Prosecutors in their over zealous styles ignore and even support any methodology of evidence production that assists them in "getting their man".

    The National Academy of Sciences is correct......forensic labs should NOT be run by or part of the Police Departments that make the arrests.
    Way too much advocacy where it should not be.

    August 17, 2009 at 3:12 pm |
  2. Carlo

    He should get a tax free million for every year he was incarcerated.

    August 17, 2009 at 3:11 pm |
  3. Michelle

    I understand the backlog due to the increasing amounts of inmates, HOWEVER, I think that it should be MANDATORY that all inmates coming up to "their date" on death row should be required to have all DNA testing done with the most up-to-date knowledge and equipment. Those who are on death row should not be euthanized based on old information. It shouldn't even have to be an appeal. It should be a process put in place that is mandatory. What if this was your son or daughter? I know that most of the individuals on death row, even those found innocent of the death sentence crime, have criminal records, but not all of them are murderers or rapists.

    August 17, 2009 at 3:10 pm |
  4. Roni

    I'm not very familiar with everything that happened to get a guilty vote by 12 juror's on this case. I was just wondering if they kidnapped and crossed state lines making it a Federal case? What's the Federal Statue of Limitation on these crimes? Maybe Federal officials can take over the case?

    August 17, 2009 at 3:10 pm |
  5. Robert

    No, science is exact. It the system that is flawed. DNA is DNA. Only in instances of a lack of DNA or twins, does DNA give false information. Every person has unique characteristics. If the lab would have done it's job, he (and all the others) we not be in jail.

    It's simple...don't spin it.

    August 17, 2009 at 3:07 pm |
  6. Trill

    There is so much that can be taken from this article but I see a lot of commenter are more worried about assigning blame.

    – In your job, if you were given the task of "review this lab work to ensure we have the right person. Because the person we have in jail says he didn't do it." or "We need this lab work done to convict a rapist that is out on the street" which would you prioritize? - I'm willing to bet most people would be more worried about who is on the streets rather than who is in jail. Its sad that there is so much crime that we have people who need to make those types of choices.

    – DNA wasn't always "the norm" and sadly eyewitnesses make mistakes. It doesn't make them bad people or deliberately misleading. In fact, we have somewhat of a backlash in cases where there is a reasonable amount of evidence to convict but no DNA. Many juries struggle to convict without it even under a great preponderance of evidence.

    – I will agree with many here that the statute of limitations on rape is too narrow. Rape is a violent crime and it shouldn't matter how long ago you did it.

    – I salute the current DA's goal of reviewing all the cases with DNA and at least we know lab tech for DNA at this point seems to have some job security.

    August 17, 2009 at 3:03 pm |
  7. oly graham

    Fire the lab – lock – stock and barrel. Finance or bid out the work and put precautions and checks in place,. It is a simple solution. FIRE THE LAB AND ALL IT'S EMPLOYEES. Permanent – one life lost in a cell for over two decades is unforgiveable....

    They do NOT deserve to stay in business.

    August 17, 2009 at 3:00 pm |
  8. 808gurl

    poor guy, i would sue... 23 years waisted sitting in that jail cell.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm |
  9. Arthur C Winters

    We Need To Get The Cob Webs Out of Congress Revamp The Legal System and Stop Letting Each State Use People In The System as a money Tool To Fill There over Budeted Rehtoric Then Maybe we would not have an over Crowded Prisons... We Made Mistakes Now lets Fix This Mess... And Not another 5yrs... 10yrs... or More. Do it NOW...

    August 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm |
  10. Brandy

    Considering that they are still checking into previous arrests before they clear him of the charges that he was proven innocent of after 23 years I wonder how much of his arrest and conviction had to due with his past instead of the evidence at hand maybe if they had not judged him and attempted to convict him of the charges at hand he would not have spent 23 years in prison.. I guess as far as the police and DA are concerned people never change it is a good thing that God judges in the after life and not them. It makes me wonder if the two cops who murdered my Aunt 20 years ago not because she was resisting arrest but because she was dating their brother and he told them to, if they would have been convicted if it wasnt for their titles in the community. This story really gives us alot to think about.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm |
  11. Charly

    Didn't Bush say they have never made a mistake when executing one of his multitude. ( Texas leads the pack). Doesn't this indicate that he either outright lied or is as big a "FOOL" as we have been proven. the saddest part is the humans of Texas still beleive him to be a great president. Who and How do you pay this man back? Texas decides the most effective way is to investigate him furhter and keep him on supervised release. I vote to let them go and elect Chuck Norris their president.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm |
  12. jeff

    The victim identified him as one of the attackers. I didn't
    see anything where the DNA would have exonerated him
    in the kidnapping. Was he present during the kidnapping?
    Did he play a part in the crime and just didn't match up in
    the DNA test ? Are we getting the whole story ?
    We don't know much about this case at all. Let's not
    make a victim out of this guy yet.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:53 pm |
  13. Mary

    I stopped believing that there was justice in this country long ago. That's what we get when we give authority a carte blanc without determining whether they really deserve the respect and the credibility they want us to give them.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:50 pm |
  14. William

    I have read about 30 threads here. And, I totally agree that this is horrible! But, there are readers here that yell that this is indicative that our entire justice system is broken.

    Quick to yell, but they offer no alternative solution.

    I would love to hear those critics that will take isolated cases like this to bash the entire "system" and hear what human-proof system they would put in place.

    This IS horrible! So is losing your wife to a drunk driver! So is losing your entire retirement because some CEOs cooked their books. So is dying over the Hudson because (possibly) a air traffic controller was talking about a dead cat.

    Find me a system that dosn't involve humans and THEN you will have a "fixed" system. Let's go critics. If you can be so harshly critical of the system, have the fortitude to provide REAL alternatives that work!

    August 17, 2009 at 2:50 pm |
  15. Mike

    I can't stand all the "black man" and racist allegations by all of you.

    Let me see if I understand this a "black man" commited a crime and stood by while another "black man" went to jail – but somehow the "man" (who knows what race) is to blame?

    Why does it have to go there? He is a man like anyone else. In the end what's done is done. It's up to him to figure out how he is going to live his life and what steps he will take against a system that wronged him.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:47 pm |
  16. mackinow

    This has become common place, I'm sorry to say. But, is inevitable when cops, judges, and prosecutors are not held accountable. But we as taxpayers are just as responsible. We have shirked our civic duties and allowed our legal system to be overrun by ineptitude, incompetence and just plain unfit people.Texans have no one to blame but themselves. Ernest – If ur ever down in Florida, I'll hire you ! Florida is prob worse than texas when it comes cops, prosecutors and the EEOC.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:46 pm |
  17. Doc

    Think about this... how rare is it that we hear about someone in this country being wrongly put behind bars or executed compared to any other country in the world... aside from canada.... we have a very liberal justice system and we should at least be grateful for that. This is just an example of the rarity but a symbol for just how free this country really is. I truely feel sorrow for what this man has been put through but i know deep down he sees that in 23 years our law enforcement personnel have grown to surpass ones race/ethnicity and more focused on the evidence, which is why he is free.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:46 pm |
  18. Ken Nairn

    Should the statute of limitations be aligned with the most probable sentence if someone is convicted?

    August 17, 2009 at 2:38 pm |
  19. Pete

    To everyone insulting the courts and officials in Texas that did this, you have to think a little harder. The cops made mistakes and not the courts. DNA testing wasn't used back then, so all they had was an eye witness to go on. That was enough at the time, so don't fault them. Science advanced since, and I'm sure in 25 years people will be looking back at our "incomplete" science wondering how we operated a "fair" justice system. The cops might have been incompetant doing the DNA testing, but at least they kept the samples to be retested.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm |
  20. Asking

    Ask the 100's of thousands behind bars if they are innocent and then queue them up to investigate each one. I hear most state justice centers are hiring. Go help them weed out the 100's of thousands that said they are innocent. Might want to support the local police chapter and be active member to ensure quality and equality.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm |
  21. david saint

    Glad to know at least the DA's office there will at least look at cases where innocent people may have been wrongfully convicted. Here in Phoenix, our County Attorney has evidence his office put an innocent woman behind bars and 2 years later is still ignoring it. her name is Courtney Bisbee, and innocent project if your reading these comments i hope you get involved....

    August 17, 2009 at 2:34 pm |
  22. andres coronado

    this makes me sick to my stomach, too many cases go to trial wihile the real guilty person free on vacation somewhere,and the innocent scratching his head saying how is this possible,

    August 17, 2009 at 2:31 pm |
  23. Ryan Kincaid

    This is becoming a common injustice. I believe it should be law to reinvestigate convictions when DNA evidence has not been tested previously.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:27 pm |
  24. Melinda Felice

    while, obviously, the most heinous actions committed here was the ineptitude of the lab, wrongly incarcerating a man, another thing also appauled me: there, apparently, is a statute of limitations on RAPE. There isnt one on murder and there shouldnt be one on rape.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:26 pm |
  25. Hobie

    This is exactly the reason I believe we can't have the death penalty in the United States.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:26 pm |
  26. Berdie Sanchez

    My baby sister was kidnapped, raped and murdered by 2 men who had already been in prison for the same offens and THEN RELEASED! Now they have innocent people in prison for 23 years? For the first in my life, I am ashamed to be an American! First the White House idiots who can't run a country, but get elected because of how much money they have, not brains! If I was this man, I would sue the state of Texas even for their shorts, and if i were a lawyer, I would do it pro bono. this country has become a cesspool of stupidity and arrogance by those in positions of power. I say fire them all and wipe the slate clean, just as we do when we clean a filthy toilet. I wouldn't cross the street to meet one single Senator, Congressman, not even any president of the last 5. they have their brains stuck in their jockies! Womanizers, boozers, DUI's, liars and apparently, not involved with anyone once they get into office. Please don't call this a democratic country! It is an elitist country, money = power. Imagine, electing a movie star as Gov. of a state, why? Oh, I forgot, he's married to a Kennedy! Does anyone get it? We need a giant eraser to wipe out all the ugly represents!

    August 17, 2009 at 2:24 pm |
  27. Eric C.

    Let's see....IF the victim discribed her attacker as "black" then Yes, another black man was inprisoned for a crime that another "black" man did.
    For those screaming "another innocent black man locked up", couldn't there be just the same number of people screaming "another guilty black man running around free"?

    And if he want's to sue anybody, have him sue the REAL problems of Society....the TRUE criminal who let him sit in jail for something the TRUE criminal did. Of course that won't happen because no lawyer is going to take a case that isn't going to pay anything, but a case against the bottomless pockets of the taxpayers, now that is a sure thing!

    August 17, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  28. Gail

    How many innocent people have died on death row because of shoddy work at this crime laboratory?

    August 17, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  29. Lisa Mac

    I say that if we cannot test the DNA evidence in a timely manner, then we, at the very least, get rid of this thing called "statute of limitations"... in my opinion, that is such a stupid concept anyway.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:21 pm |
  30. Juan Rivas

    This show how the criminal justice system has its corruptions. Over time more and more of these cases will appear as the criminal justice system gets more profound information and becomes more of a profession than a service to the people.God bless this poor man and nothing in the world will make up for his 23 lost year thanks to the mistake of the Houston police ran lab.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:20 pm |
  31. Rose from Muscoy, Calif

    Now, I know why the saying, "JUSTICE IS BLIND". The people who suppost to enforce the laws sometimes block it also, with there laziness.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm |
  32. William Peel

    This person is innocent, I like to know how in the heck a jury found him guilty. Since he is innocent, there had to be reasonable doubt. Then again this is Texas we are talking about. (Deep South) With all of the racism in the South I don't understand why Black people stay there. Remember Jim Crow sheesh, that should of been reason enough to leave. Juries are not doing their job.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:12 pm |
  33. Marilyn

    The Innocence Project staff and attorneys are my heroes. Their website gives lots of good information about this terrible problem – innocent lives ruined, innocent people on death row, innocent people waiting too long to have their cases reheard or their dna evidence missing.
    I agree the death penalty should be repealed in the United States of America. I agree the persons responsible for poor investigation of evidence shoudl be at least terminated and I agree that our system of using eye witnesses should be examined by a panel of experts (who are they?) to improve or eliminate that method as evidence.
    It could be any one of us tomorrow.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:11 pm |
  34. Steve R

    Daniel Kinsman is right on; how many innocent people has TX murdered with our tax dollars despite the fact they also budgeted and took money for this "LAB". how can any reasoning person support the taking of another life when the system is so obviously corrupt and broken? Having said that i fully expect the crazed death penalty advocates to come and chime in on that is just "the cost of doing business" and the death penalty is a "deterrent". nonsense..Most studies show that the use of the death penalty increases violence, especially among those seeking "death by cop or needle". it's just insane ..our chance to be compassionate christians and other faiths is diminished by the wrath of god blood mongering corruption and incompetence. And still the lowing crowd of sheep will bellow for more blood..Pitiful

    August 17, 2009 at 2:07 pm |
  35. Tim

    It's sad that in this country, that revenge is confused with justice. Nobody really cares if the wrong person is convicted and jailed for a crime as long as somebody is. Why does the Innocence Project have to clean up behind the police and DA? Because we tolerate it.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:05 pm |
  36. married2thepreacher

    My brother is in prison for a crime he did not commit. Everyday, I read a story like this it both sickens me that we are suppose to have the best judicial system there is and it gives me hope that one day my brother will be reunited with his family.

    I am also amazed at those that post in response to these articles. How many of you would have be screaming for this mans conviction 23 years ago? Society believes what they want, and the press as well as the D.A. wanted society to believe this man was guilty 23 years ago. Science has proved otherwise. Thank God!

    We should not be so quick to judge. Nothing can come close to compensating this man for the loss of time with his family and his own loss of life.

    Once again, they proved that justice doesn't mean the bad guy goes to jail, it just means someone pays for the crime.
    -The Freedom Writers

    Your job is to find justice no matter how well she may hide herself from you. So you go in there and you do your job.
    -Lucien Wilbanks from A Time to Kill

    I seek justice everyday for my brother and I firmly believe with the help of the Innocence Project someday he will come home. I just hope and pray it doesn't take 23 years.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:04 pm |
  37. Les

    Did I really read that the guilty parties will not be arrested because the statute of limitations has expired? Please, tell me it's not so. Perhaps its time to tweak the rules that govern the statute of limitations just a little bit, don't you think? If , as in this case, we know who the guilty parties really are, then by all means go and arrest them . This man has lost 23 years of his life that we cannot give back to him. The very least we can do is apprehend and prosecute the guilty parties.

    August 17, 2009 at 2:01 pm |
  38. Leroy

    Outrageous,the system in Houston must be fixed. We have to many young men in prison, for doing wrong. Let's keep the innocence ones free.God bless america.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:59 pm |
  39. Xavier

    I agree that it is sad that an innocent man went to prison for a long time, But it doesn’t mean it’s the cops or the District Attorneys fault. They did what they felt was right, and obviously 12 other jury members agreed. This man had a fair trial.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:59 pm |
  40. Walter Smith

    This is what happens to so many minorities in the country.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:58 pm |
  41. TH

    He is on supervised release? Why?
    We had a man in NC that served 18 years for a murder he did not commit. They discovered that from DNA too. So sad.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:56 pm |
  42. Incredible

    Tragic to be sure...but nearly incredible is the information at the end of the article:

    "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. "

    Spending more time and more to investigate "his past"...HE HAS BEEN IN JAIL THE PAST 23 YEARS!!! His "Past" was taken by the state. Can't leave well enough alone and let this beaten down individual be done with a broken system...simply incredible.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:56 pm |
  43. Aquariandramaqueen

    This is an injustice on so many levels. Mr. Sonnier can never get those 23 years back! Who plans on making that up to him? No apology, no amount of money, no clearing of his record will make up for the hell this man and his family have had to endure at the hands of an extremely flawed system. The worst part: he isn't the only person this has happened to and if something isn't done soon, he won't be the last.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:51 pm |
  44. Jim

    To Ernest Sonnier,
    The Districit Attorney made an error in judgment in your case that resulted in you being convicted for a serious crime you did not do. Therefore for the 23 years you were held against your will , you should be reimbursed financially for these years. Get a good attorney who will take your case on a contingency and sue in order to protect your rights. No system is perfect and it is evident in court cases errors have been made and will continue to take place. People like you have a right to be angry, but it is imperative to relieve your anger in the proper way and that would be to get the justice you deserve. This will help in two ways, to make you whole again and to hopefully better the Judicial system of prosecution. I'm truly sorry this happened to you. Jim.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:50 pm |
  45. CJ

    For everyone bringing up race as an issue, how do we know the 2 men convicted weren't black? There are plenty of white people wrongly convicted too, so let's leave that out. It's the system, and back at the time DNA testing wasn't what it is today.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:50 pm |
  46. Andy

    I wonder how many more truly innocent people are behind bars because of "poor lab work across the us?"

    August 17, 2009 at 1:50 pm |
  47. fast eddie

    oh well just a case of preventitive medicine...look at em he would have hurt whitey in some way..right

    August 17, 2009 at 1:50 pm |
  48. carl light

    the system needs to be monitored not Ernest!!!!!!!

    August 17, 2009 at 1:49 pm |
  49. spunky

    yea but at like this no telling how many people it saved from a victim of him had he been out , i`m just saying

    August 17, 2009 at 1:48 pm |
  50. Rosemary Florence

    DNA testing MUST be mandatory for all rape and murder cases. Prosecutors must not be allowed to bring a case unless DNA testing has been done.

    August 17, 2009 at 1:48 pm |
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