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. julieintennessee

    This story, coming only hours after a black man in Georgia(Troy Davis) got a chance for a new trial to expose the shoddy and corrupt behaviors of (esp.) local police, esp. in the South. Racism is insidious. And the death penalty puts us in the company of Singapore, Iran, and those guys we love to hate - we are one of only 5 industrialized nations who still use state killing. I like the idea of the enforcers having to pay the time in jail.

    August 18, 2009 at 4:49 pm |
  2. Mike in NYC

    I'm curious as to why this thread was moved back to the top of the AC360 ticker, and still remains there.

    August 18, 2009 at 4:02 pm |
  3. lampe

    I do believe he should be given some money. but not millions of dollars. He should be given what he could have made working, and then a little extra for his freedom. He was not a man without any problems when this happened.

    August 18, 2009 at 3:33 pm |
  4. Jo Ann, North Royalton, Ohio

    This is certainly a miscarriage of justice. Although it is true that science is not perfect and we cannot predict what techniques may become available in the future, there is absolutely no excuse for not using new techniques when they become available. This case becomes even more troublesome because of the allegations against this crime lab. That alone should have warranted immediate DNA testing by another lab.

    Although Mr. Sonnier did have a criminal record prior to these charges, he was entitled to the use of any and all testing that might have exonerated him. In my opinion, the DA's office acted recklessly. Not only did they deprive Mr. Sonnier of his freedom for 23 years, but they have prevented the victim from receiving justice for the crime committed against her.

    The DA's office should be held responsible on both counts.

    August 18, 2009 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Nathan Roth

    The fact of the matter is that the justice system was and is designed to allow for the, albeit rare, but occasional conviction of an innocent person for the great many guilty persons who are convicted for that one. It's a tradeoff that society has to accept. Corrupt people working the case or not, this will continue to happen. This is further complicated by the fact that when these people, the majority of the wrongfully convicted, were in the system, DNA evidence was so new, and we relied on it so much, that there were bound to be complications. Unfortunately, Sonnier is not the first, nor will he be the last.

    August 18, 2009 at 3:11 pm |
  6. Isabel • Brazil

    As a person and a responsible citizen, regardless my nationality, that is a disgrace to humanity.

    Error shameful!

    The society must apologize to you, Mr. Sonnier.

    August 18, 2009 at 3:06 pm |
  7. Vivi FL

    This nightmare reminds me of MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers. Who's the Monster now?

    August 18, 2009 at 2:59 pm |
  8. Mo Chaudhury

    I recommend the following to address the valid concerns of the folks opposing the public option plan.
    President Obama sets up a charity foundation in cooperation with the organization of churches. the sole charter of this charity will be raise donations from individuals and businesses to pay for the insurance cost of the otherwise uninsured under the public option plan. The donations will receive the same tax treatment as any other charity donations.

    1. This will make the public option a public-private venture, not just a government venture.

    2. This will provide a pure play opportunity for individuals and businesses to contribute solely for the purpose of helping the disadvantaged Americans in obtaining much needed health care.

    August 18, 2009 at 2:09 pm |
  9. Dana

    If DNA evidence is such an exact science...why did it narrow it down to two other men as opposed to the one? How reliable is DNA evidence?

    August 18, 2009 at 2:02 pm |
  10. Susan in Sunnyvale

    I just sent The Innocence Project a donation– everyone should.

    August 18, 2009 at 1:19 pm |
  11. Ashley

    That's really sad. I wish they would've found out sooner. Too many people are being convicted for something they didn't do. And on the flip-side, a ton of people are getting away with murder. What a waste of his life. 23 Years in the harsh conditions of a prison cell for something you didn't do. He probably can't even get a job now that he's out :[

    August 18, 2009 at 1:12 pm |
  12. Dorothy

    This does not surprise me at all !!!!!

    August 18, 2009 at 12:43 pm |
  13. dennis waite

    another gulity by being black ...and all white court houses ;

    August 18, 2009 at 12:41 pm |
  14. Alexis

    I believe anything ever since my son was railroaded for "reckless endangerment" while target praticing in a remote area after coming back from 2 tours in Iraq. The judge was a "military hater" & stuck it to my son while believing 2 pot smoking kids who said he was deliberatly shooting at them. My son got house arrest for 9 months, and probation, but was facing 10 years in prison. He was completely innocent!

    This would never happen, if all lawyers worked for the gov and were appointed randomly everyone would be treated fairly. Rich people basically buy their way out, while others get inferior lawyers due to price range. People would be appalled if all court cases where on TV for everyone to see how fast an "average Joe" gets sent up the river with a "not so fair" trial.

    August 18, 2009 at 11:57 am |
  15. Ali

    How do you know that "Adam Mania"? He may have screwed up when he was young but he could have turned himself around.

    I know very well how bad the system is here in Houston. My son was wrongfully arrested, beat up, and charged with a felony. They assumed he was some "kid from the ghetto" because he is bi-racial. They were wrong. It cost us thousands of dollars to get him out on bond and get a lawyer. All this and they never even asked questions (he was in a club) or did a line-up. When they figured out it wasn't him we were just supposed to be happy they figured it out. Screw the money we spent. If it had gone to trial we were looking at another $20,000.00. If we couldn't afford all of this my son would be sitting in prison right now. There are many who cannot afford it and, I believe, are innocent and in prison. What happened to this man is terrible and I believe there are many more in the same situation.

    August 18, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  16. jack flash

    and of course it's all Bush's fault.

    August 18, 2009 at 11:42 am |
  17. Angela

    This is abssolutely insane. This man has lost 23 years of his life, that can't be replaced. How can people make a mistake like this. Things such as this make people loose faith in the legal system. May God help this country.

    August 18, 2009 at 11:13 am |
  18. Casey

    Don't mess with Texas huh? Why is it that so many of these cases come out of the Lone Star State? How many innocent lives have been executed because of their ridiculous need to have the most executions in the country

    August 18, 2009 at 7:40 am |
  19. mike

    the DA gets funding for convictions. they are not intersested in justice, only in not loosing. it is a game to them

    August 18, 2009 at 7:18 am |
  20. Brittany

    Not much comfort, but at least he's getting some money out of it:
    "A wrongfully convicted person is entitled to $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, as well as $25,000 per year spent on parole or as a registered sex offender. The wrongfully convicted person is also entitled to compensation for child support payments, tuition for up to 120 hours at a career center or public institution of higher learning, and reentry and reintegration services. This law amends the existing law."

    That's 1.8 million. Plus college for free.

    But regardless. He can't ever get those 23 years back.

    August 18, 2009 at 4:37 am |
  21. Virgil Miller

    I didn't think there was a statute of limitations on capital crimes.

    August 18, 2009 at 4:12 am |
  22. Jed Backus

    Someone please tell me that there are provisions for these wrongful incarceration cases. How in the world can this man be expected to go out now and start his life again at 46 in this economy. Let's face it, how many employers will look at this guy and still not hold his well publicized incarceration against him. There needs to be a rehabilitation program and life long compensation, bottom line, or the government is doing this man no favors by setting him free. For heavens sake he is living with his Mom for now. What kind of dignity can this man be expected to have. Anyone remember Shawshank redemption? I vote stimulus money be put towards a program for wrongful imprisonment victims.

    August 18, 2009 at 3:49 am |
  23. YANNA

    Texas, Texas, Texas...amazing how things are sooo very different there. Rules are different, laws are different, and the people are different. Ever talk to someone from there, they act like the are superior to the rest of the country, whatever!

    I lived there for a few years, and never ever want to again! Keep your six flags, your corupt police departments, bigots, and racists!

    August 18, 2009 at 2:47 am |
  24. Jay

    People above are reacting with anger and resentment. All this is understandable.
    Money won't heal this.
    I can't imagine putting a price tag on this. I wouldn't want that task.
    He wasn't a righteous man before, and that labeled him and made it easier to then convict him.

    August 18, 2009 at 2:21 am |
  25. glenneboy

    DNA testing does not prove a thing, it only says that a given sample is likely or not likely to be a match to what is being tested. Granted when the odds are a billion to one it seems that the match is certain but in fact it is still a question of probability. To think of DNA as being "proof" of anything is pretty much like proving there must be a Tooth Fairy because everytime you put a tooth under your pillow you get some money. DNA testing is nice but to call it proof of anything is simply wrong. - Even the TV shows get it right when they offer up DNA testing; every "Law and Order" type show I have ever seen always say "there is one chance in "x".

    August 18, 2009 at 1:53 am |
  26. Ayla

    And if I had to guess on why he is being monitored.... you try being imprisoned for the whole of your life and see how stable you are coming into an unknown world, suddenly being surrounded with a loving atmosphere not recently experienced.... I'm sure it's for everyone's protection and comfortable living.

    August 18, 2009 at 1:52 am |
  27. Ayla

    And for the record... I certainly agree that he should be disgustingly compensated for the life he has missed out on, and the careers of those who were careless, scrutinously evaluated.

    August 18, 2009 at 1:51 am |
  28. Ayla

    True, this is a horrible case. This is an unmeasurably unfortunate event. But there are so many aspects to this entire argument. Firstly and foremostly, humans make mistakes. We do not live in a utopia. We are not perfect. Now, these mistakes are cruel and extreme examples of just how badly, careless mistakes can be, but turning a harsh and cruel word upon everyone that made a mistake doesn't fix things. People are so quick to jump on things that are 'wrong' and yet so oblivious of all of the right. The government cannot be perfect... they can do better, but imagine trying to govern, and maintain a diverse society of millions.... how effective would any one method be? Now as far as the death penalty is concerned, it is just like any other risky procedure, or medicine, or vaccine..... (Although the consequences of an 'adverse reaction' are much more severe, the principal still remains) For ever bad 'side effect' there is a countlessly higher ratio of successes. If We, the People, have decided that for some heinous crimes, death should be the punishment, how can we be so quick to withdraw that opinion because of some bad happenings. Human life is to be cherished. But unfortunately there are people out there that are not as open minded, and warm-hearted.... and essentially couldn't care less. Hence, the happenings of brutal crime. If we take the ratio of people that really are guilty in jail, and those who are found to be innocent, and then relatively apply that ratio to the death penalty mishaps just to speculate..... would we rather sacrifice more public safety and tax dollars on only imprisoning (with the possiblility of escape) truely disturbed and guilty prisoners rather than accidentally killing a few innocent ones? The closest thing to harmony humans will ever get will ALWAYs require unbearable sacrifice. If we didn't have a legal system that attempted to control it's citizens with laws, what would we look like? Every man for himself, dog eat dog, survival of the fittest... We wouldn't be America of the Free... Every freedom and luxury we have here REQUIRES terrible mishappenings. It's hurtful, but it's the terrible (and hurtful) truth. would you rather have 90% more murderous ravenous psychopaths just waiting to escape than 10% innocent deaths? Maybe you would.... I wouldn't.

    August 18, 2009 at 1:46 am |
  29. Sam

    You all,

    Since DNA testing has been discovered, TENS OF THOUSANDS of people who have been wrongfully imprisoned have been released. This is nothing new. His story is one of thousands. Someone pointed out "how many innocent people are still behind bars." Likely thousands more, my friends.

    The Innocence Project strives to correct these errors. They are an amazing company with smart, savvy and compasionate people. They do not get ample funding, but they have been the catalyst for around 200 freed innocent people.

    If you want to make a difference, donate to them.

    August 18, 2009 at 1:20 am |
  30. willie

    God will right the wrong, but how about they compensate the man for wrongful imprisonment and there should never be a statue of limitation on murder its a wonder the man isnt very bitter wrong is wrong

    August 18, 2009 at 1:18 am |
  31. Blake

    Donald Marshall Jr. and David Milgard suffered similar fates in the Canadian judicial system. Both freed later. Both compensated with over a million dollars because the crown (state) made a mistake. While the money can't replace the lost time, it is a form of justice in that it signifies a penalty against the system which failed the citizen.
    There are others in Canada who have been wrongfully convicted and later freed. As has been mentioned, every one of these is an argument against the death penalty.

    August 18, 2009 at 1:03 am |
  32. bertina

    This is so sad. I am sure there are many people locked up for crimes they didn't commit, but, the cops, judicial system, prosecutors are never wrong??? When they are proven wrong they won't move any faster than they have to to rectify the error. There are some good people in the judicial system, but, a whole lot of bad ones too. Cops will purposely aggravate a person to make them do things they normally wouldn't unless they can keep their cool, then, they can tack on more charges.I know how it goes.

    August 18, 2009 at 12:47 am |
  33. me

    An answer to a comment by ACE, this has happened to white men also. It happened to me, so enough with the racial crap, OK

    August 18, 2009 at 12:45 am |
  34. Eddie

    Times have changed and so must the laws! Hundreds of years ago the founding fathers had no idea things would have evolved the way they did. The time to make the change is now!

    August 18, 2009 at 12:40 am |
  35. CJSmith

    why even blog about this if the blog we wrote cannot be shown. oh well.

    August 18, 2009 at 12:31 am |
  36. okay

    They should not rely too heavily on DNA. Some people are Chimeras.

    August 18, 2009 at 12:18 am |
  37. Terri Johnson

    I'm praying it does not take 23 years for the justice system to free my innocent son. As my son languishes in the Michigan prison system convicted of a crime without a motive, witness or a weapon this story gives me hope! My son's triai judge and original prosecutor were brothers which surprisingly is not unethical. The two witnesses both were given deals for their past crimes even though they both stated they had lied originally.The only physical evidence was a mangled bullet in which the expert stated could have come from a gun that was missing from my son's girlfriend house. The gun was never found to compare, The person in the car with the victim was related to my son's girlfriend never testifies as he saw nothing according to him... Still I hope and I pray! Thanks to your show I'm going to focus my direction to forensic ballistic evidence. So far not being judge by a jury of his peers wasn't enough maybe this will help.

    August 18, 2009 at 12:16 am |
  38. ezed

    Great comments, and certainly this looks like a terrible injustice on the surface (and probably the deeper you dig the worse it gets). But, just a couple of things to think about:

    1. How many posters here wanted to hang the Duke kids before they even went on trial?
    2. This is why I always told my kids to keep a clean record, someday it maybe your word against another persons, and you need to be clean to be credible.

    That said, it is a shame, and it is a great argument against the death penalty, and he should be made financially whole.

    August 18, 2009 at 12:14 am |
  39. Joe Cool

    Where is the woman who falsely accused him of raping her? Unfortunately, this happens too many times around the country. The favorite catch phrase when some business makes an error that causes problems for an individual..."sorry for the inconvenience."

    August 18, 2009 at 12:09 am |
  40. Connie Perry

    This whole thing makes me sick, it's not black or white it's an INNOCENT man who got 26 years he did not deserve. Now a days they have the "right" to do anything they want to you and you have the right to "shut up and take it." Police tazer whom ever they please, men women (pregnant women) etc. There is TO MUCH red tape going on. They "make a guess" and hope they are right, why is there statues of limition on anything, they did it, they need the time, he didn't do it, and got the time, (how screwed up is that.) I am REALLY angry. The whole trust issue is totally becoming bs. You wear a badge or a black robe so I am just SUPPOSED to trust your going to do the right thing.

    Connie Perry

    August 18, 2009 at 12:08 am |
  41. John Doe

    it is truly ironic that in the country where corporations can claim "past financial results are not an indication of future performance", individual people can create an expectation of indication of future moral performance, because of their past.

    this is a parody of a justice system. there is no justice, there is just a letter of law, having nothing to do with justice; the authors of the laws had insufficient imaginations and overblown egos to tell others what is right or wrong.

    "i can forgive but i can't forget". these words are truly worthy of a human being whose 23 years of life were wasted without any cause, other to prove that 9 to 5 legal system is simply immoral and devoid of scruples outside of work hours.

    August 18, 2009 at 12:02 am |
  42. Big Papa

    This not only happens to black men. I was a policeman for many years. I spent 10 years in prison for crimes I did not commit. Do you really believe anyone cares? Most just believe if you are charged you did it. Sad but very true.

    August 17, 2009 at 11:26 pm |
  43. Jimmy

    Everybody in the lab and the whole police force should be locked up for 23 years and see how they like it.

    August 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm |
  44. Claxton

    Here's something for folks to get up in arms about. Forget the debate about health care. How about finding justice for people who can't get it in this country? This man should be compensated for spending 23 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Heck, he and his family should own the state of Texas right about now.

    Not only do I agree with those here who have already made the comment about abolishing the death penalty, I also believe that administration of the death penalty by individual states should be made unconstitutional. Even though the death penalty clearly wasn't in play here, this is the kind of case where an innocent man could have very easily been murdered in the name of "justice". If anyone deserves justice, this man does.

    August 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm |
  45. Fred Harris

    If The DNA test is so precise, why did it produce 2 more matches for the 1 guilty person, we are now up to 3 confirmed guitly people from this one dna sample. yea- right. Goto go, it's 5:00.

    August 17, 2009 at 10:58 pm |
  46. David

    I can sympathise with this man, empathise, I should say. I was convicted of a rape I did not commit, "date rape," the DA in my case suborned perjury from witnesses. My whole life is trashed. Even though I have been out of prison since 2001, I am still in prison. No job. No health care. Can't see my daughter. No money. I know what it is like to be falsely convicted of something; no one cared then, no one cares now. It is all too easy in this country to lock someone up on false/no evidence.

    August 17, 2009 at 10:43 pm |
  47. M. Muniz, Indiana

    Silly Me... So they won't go get the other person who is Actually Responsible for this? Hmmm Because the statue of limitations has run out? I wonder??? If this had been a COLD CASE and they got the DNA would the statue of limitations still be worthy? IF that's the case? then they should still be able to go after the real rapist (since they never really caught the right one)!!!! Oh and exactly why are they checking out this mans past? are they now going to incarcerate him for a charge that he might have commited 23 years ago? is there not a statue of limitations on that? LOL not laughing at what this man has been through just laughing at the ignorance of our "Justice SystemSSS"!!! M. Muniz, Warsaw, Indiana

    August 17, 2009 at 10:29 pm |
  48. Nancy

    Daniel Kinsman August 17th, 2009 12:44 pm ET

    This is the argument against the death penalty.
    Uh, he wasn't on death row, idiot, just in prison.

    But I DO believe the state should be held financially responsible for doing this to the man. He missed out on half his life, was never given the opportunity to learn how to become a productive citizen and only has about 35 good years to work left in him, forget about building up a retirement plan to take care of him in his elder years.

    The city and the state need to write this man a check and put a lot of zeros on the end of it,

    August 17, 2009 at 9:57 pm |
  49. CJSmith

    I want to know how many innocent victims were executed and then DNA evidence proved they executed the wrong person.

    August 17, 2009 at 9:48 pm |
  50. michelle

    here's the thing- there are so MANY MANY cases that involve no DNA at all, especially cases of armed robbery where the only evidence is a victim's eyewitness ID (which is so unreliable)-believe me – there are more people than you can believe in prison for a crime they most likely didn't commit. SAD!!!!

    August 17, 2009 at 9:48 pm |
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