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Ernest Sonnier Freed After 23 Years, Direct from The Innocence Project NewsDesk, Robert Paisola Reports

Today is the first day of Ernest Sonnier’s new life.

The 46-year-old Houston man walked out of a courthouse today free for the first time since 1986. Sonnier was wrongfully convicted of a rape he didn’t commit based on a shaky eyewitness identification and shoddy forensic science. DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project on his behalf now proves his innocence and implicates two other men as the perpetrators of the crime. A Texas judge freed Sonnier on bond today while proceedings to fully exonerate him move forward.

He was joined in court this morning by his family, along with Innocence Project Staff Attorney Alba Morales, Social Worker Angela Amel and several other Innocence Project clients exonerated with DNA testing in Texas in recent years. Sonnier will live with his mother, Altha Davis, while adjusting to freedom and continuing his fight to fully clear his name. Davis told reporters she knew Sonnier was innocent because he was with her on Christmas Eve 1985, the night of the crime, and she never gave up hope that her son would come home. “It’s been long for me, so long,” she said. “I’m happy and so sad at the same time.”

Read more about Sonnier’s case here, and send him a personal message welcoming him home after 23 long years of wrongful incarceration.

Sonnier’s case is the latest in a string of wrongful convictions caused in part by faulty forensic testing at the Houston Police Department Crime Lab. Although blood-type testing on important crime scene evidence conducted before trial didn’t match Sonnier’s type — and even suggested that he may be innocent — an analysts testified at his trial that he could still be the perpetrator, based on a conclusion not supported by the analyst’s own report.

Houston has been an epicenter of forensic problems but faulty forensic testing is a national problem and must be addressed in order to prevent more wrongful convictions. Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences called for the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Science to provide research, support and oversight in forensic disciplines to prevent wrongful convictions and help law enforcement identify the perpetrators of crime.

You can help prevent future wrongful convictions today — sign a petition urging Congress to implement forensic reform.

We will post updates on the Innocence Blog in the weeks ahead as Sonnier’s continues his quest to fully clear his name.

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We at the Robert Paisola Foundation Salute Innocence Project Staff Attorney Alba Morales, Social Worker Angela Amel for their tireless dedication to the pursuit of justice for the innocent who are accused. THIS IS WHAT The Innocence Project in association with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law has created.

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Robert Paisola
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From The Innocence Project News Link at

Man who spent 23 years in jail released on bond after DNA testing

Ernest Sonnier's mom said she always knew he was innocent
10:43 PM CDT on Friday, August 7, 2009
By Jeremy Desel & Alex Sanz / 11 News

HOUSTON—Ernest Sonnier, a Houston man who spent 23 years in prison for a kidnapping he says he didn’t commit, was released on bond Friday afternoon. Prosecutors didn’t oppose his release because DNA testing has raised issues about his guilt.

Sonnier walked out of the courthouse around 2 p.m., flanked by his family.

“I feel good. I’m glad I’m home,” Sonnier said. “It’s been hard for me, you know.”

Attorneys with the Innocence Project say they can prove two other men committed the crime that put Sonnier behind bars.

11 News Video
Mom: I always knew my son was innocent
August 6, 2009

“Welcome home, Ernest. It’s been 23 years for him. His family has waited a very long time for this moment,” Alba Morales, the Innocence Project attorney representing Sonnier, said in a brief press conference outside the courthouse.

“I appreciate everything that they’ve done for me. I can’t say the words, how happy I am for them helping me, you know, because they really didn’t have to step up and help me like they did,” Sonnier said.

Sonnier said he always told people he met in prison that he was innocent, and that his family never doubted him.

“I said it over and over. I was innocent. And my mom said I was innocent. She knew I was innocent. My dad knew I was innocent. All I did is kept fighting. Just kept fighting,” Sonnier said.

When asked if he was angry about losing 23 years of freedom, Sonnier said he’s put that behind him.

“I used to be mad, but the past is the past,” he said.

Sonnier has been fitted with an ankle monitor and is forbidden to leave Harris County while the investigation into his case continues.

“His case was one where faulty forensics by the Houston Police Department criminal laboratory as well as a bad eyewitness ID, a wrongful, mistaken eyewitness identification put him away. He lost 23 years of his life. His nieces and nephews have grown up without him. Twenty-three years are gone, and today he can start to reclaim those years,” Morales said.

The courthouse was packed with Sonnier’s friends and family members as he appeared before the judge Friday morning.

After the hearing was over, they gathered in the hallway for a prayer.

Sonnier’s mother, Altha Davis, said the news was bittersweet since her son has lost more than two decades of his life.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Davis said. “When you’re constantly worrying about him being locked up in there, and knowing that he was innocent. It was really hard to know that he had to be up in there that long before this day would come.”

“I can’t say the words how happy I am for them helping me, you know, ‘cause they didn’t really have to step up and help me like they did,” said Sonnier.

His family plans to have a celebratory dinner in Sonnier’s honor Friday night.

“I’m very, very tired, but I’m very, very happy, too. Very happy to have my son home,” she said.

Davis said goodbye to her 23-year-old son on July 3, 1986, when he was sentenced to life in prison. He was convicted of kidnapping a woman from an Alief service station on Christmas Eve of 1985. The victim was repeatedly raped by two men on a drive to San Antonio. She later escaped. No one else was ever charged in the case.

Davis said she knew all along that her son was innocent.

“I prayed constantly. Never gave up,” Davis said.

It may seem like 23 years of unanswered prayers for Sonnier’s family have finally come true, but then again, maybe they were just different answers.

“I’m especially grateful that the evidence remained in Ernest’s case because it was from 1986. The fact that evidence even existed to be tested is pretty miraculous,” said Morales.

For his family, the evidence they needed was there all along.

“I knew Ernest had not done that crime because Ernest was at home. It was Christmas Eve. How could you forget Christmas Eve? Everybody remembers Christmas Eve. They just insisted that he was guilty,” said Davis.

Sonnier’s conviction was largely based on blood-typing evidence known as serology that was, according to the Innocence Project, badly mishandled.

“The serology alone should have raised serious questions about this case before it ever got to the trial stage,” Morales said.

In fact, the evidence should have excluded Sonnier as a suspect. However, at the time an eyewitness photo lineup also pointed to Sonnier.

Now, DNA retesting has proven Sonnier could not have committed the crime, according to his attorneys. They say it has also identified two other men believed to be responsible for raping the victim. Their DNA was found in CODIS, the national criminal offender database.

Both men are now out on the streets. The district attorney's office says there will be no attempt to prosecute them because the statute of limitations has run out.

Current Harris County District Attorney Pat Lycos inherited the ongoing trouble with convictions based on poorly tested evidence and questionable testimony from analysts at the Houston Police Crime Lab and is working on double checking DNA evidence.

“If someone is wrongfully convicted that is a twin tragedy because the guilty person is still out on the street,” said Lycos.

That’s why Lycos has set up the Post Conviction Review Unit in her office to independently review cases.

“We are going to be looking into everyone and every case that we can subject to DNA testing. We will do that because that is our mandate,” said Baldwin Chin, who is heading up the new unit.

Lycos says Sonnier’s case has ramifications far beyond a wrongful conviction. The case is not only about past mistakes, but Lycos says it shines a light on future needs, such as an independent crime lab.

“There will be other cases, but I want you to understand that there are 3,800 rape kits in the HPD property room. They need to be retested. Every last one of them. They need to be retested,” Lycos said.

“It was there. The evidence was on the table. I wasn’t the guy. And they failed to show justice,” said Sonnier. “There’s plenty more, you know, left in there that’s innocent. There’s plenty more. You know? I want to be an example for them.”

Sonnier's release comes just a couple of months after Governor Perry signed legislation increasing compensation for people who are wrongfully convicted.

The bill increased the payments from $50,000 for every year in confinement to $80,000 for each year.

It also provides $25,000 for each year a person spends on parole as a registered sex offender.

Exonerees also get 120 hours of paid tuition at a public college.

Sonnier's lawyer says he can't file for compensation until he's fully exonerated and that could take months.

Attorney: DNA clears Houston man who spent 23 years in prison

05:46 PM CDT on Thursday, August 6, 2009
By Michelle Homer / 11 News

HOUSTON -- A Houston man sent to prison for a 1985 kidnapping has been cleared by DNA, according to The Innocence Project.


Earnest Sonnier was 23 when he was sent to prison in 1986.

Ernest Sonnier was 23 when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1986.

The victim was abducted from a gas station by two men on Christmas Eve. They took turns raping her on the drive to San Antonio. The woman later escaped.

At a hearing Friday, Sonnier's attorneys will ask a judge to release him on bond. The Harris County District Attorney's Office told 11 News they will not oppose the bond request.

“We fully expect Ernest Sonnier to be home with his family on Friday night for the first time in more than 23 years,” said Alba Morales, the Innocence Project attorney handling the case. “This is a complicated case, but the bottom line is simple: Ernest Sonnier is innocent, and his long nightmare is coming to an end."

Morales said they have conducted nine rounds of DNA testing on multiple pieces of evidence for the last 18 months.

"Not a shred of evidence ties Ernest to this crime, but DNA testing has identified the two apparent perpetrators," Morales said in a written statement.

Those two suspects are convicted felons and one is awaiting trial on another rape case.

The Innocence Project said faulty testimony from a Houston Police Department Crime Lab analyst led to his conviction.

Part of the reinvestigation included a review of the eyewitness identification by the victim. She did not get a close look at the perpetrators because the light in the car was never on, and her head was down most of the time. Six months after the crime, she selected Sonnier in a photo array, but she admitted at trial that he looked less like the perpetrator in person than he did in the photo.

Sonnier’s attorney at the time did not challenge the forensic testimony and did not call a single witness in Sonnier’s defense.

Sonnier’s is the latest in a string of cases where DNA testing has proven inmates' innocence after wrongful convictions involving faulty forensics at the HPD Crime Lab.

Last year, Innocence Project client Ronnie Taylor was exonerated through DNA testing after serving more than 13 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. In Taylor’s case, a forensic analyst claimed to have conducted testing for the presence of semen on evidence from the crime scene and found none. Years later, DNA testing on the exact same spot proved Taylor’s innocence – and proved that the testing had either never been done or had been conducted improperly, according to the Innocence Project.

“For years, Houston has been ground zero in the national epidemic of faulty forensic science," said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. "There are still thousands of cases from the Houston Crime Lab that need to be reviewed, and that needs to happen quickly. In many ways, Houston is a symptom of the root problem, which is a lack of national standards and oversight for forensic science.”

Among the nation’s 241 DNA exonerations to date, 38 were in Texas. About half involved invalidated or improper forensic science, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

Five Cardozo students worked on the Sonnier case.

“Every time problematic forensic science implicates an innocent person, an actual criminal goes free," Scheck said.

In Sonnier’s case, the Harris County District Attorney’s office cooperated on an extensive reinvestigation and review of the conviction, according to Scheck.

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