Friday, 7 August 2009

DNA Testing Proves Houston Man’s Innocence in 1985 Rape; Case Highlights Serious Problems with Forensic Science

The Innocence Project, which represents Ernest Sonnier, will ask a judge to free him on bond Friday.

(HOUSTON, TX; August 6, 2009) – New DNA test results show that Ernest Sonnier did not commit a 1985 rape for which he was convicted in Houston in 1986. The DNA testing implicates two convicted felons as the actual perpetrators of the crime. At a hearing Friday, the Innocence Project, which represents Sonnier, will ask a judge to release him on bond while the legal process of fully exonerating him moves forward.

“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 Staff 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. We 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.”

The case stems from a kidnapping and rape on Christmas Eve 1985. Two men approached a woman at a service station in the Alief area of Houston at night, forced the woman into her car, threatened to kill her and began driving toward San Antonio. The men took turns raping the woman during the seven-hour drive. Near 4 a.m. the next morning, they finally stopped the car and the victim escaped. Although two men committed the crime, Sonnier was the only person charged. He was convicted in December 1986 and sentenced to life in prison.

Sonnier was convicted based on relatively shaky eyewitness identification by the victim in the case – an identification supported by forensic science that was improperly conducted and presented. A Houston Police Department Crime Lab analyst identified seminal fluid on the rape kit swabs and the victim’s shirt, jeans and underwear. The analyst conducted testing to determine the perpetrator’s blood type and found no trace of Sonnier’s blood type on any of the evidence. When he testified at Sonnier’s trial, the analyst only addressed the fluid found in the rape kit and did not tell the jury that seminal fluid found on the victim’s clothing had no trace of Sonnier’s blood type. During the analyst’s testimony, the prosecution suggested that Sonnier could still be the perpetrator because the victim was menstruating during the attack and her blood type could have overwhelmed the perpetrator’s. The analyst agreed – even though there was no reference to this possibility in the analyst’s pre-trial notes and reports, and the analyst did not test all of the items of evidence for the presence of blood that could have come from the victim. In short, the analyst agreed with a conclusion that the evidence did not support. Sonnier’s privately retained attorney 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 innocence after wrongful convictions involving faulty forensics at the Houston Police Department 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.

“For years, Houston has been Ground Zero in the national epidemic of faulty forensic science. This case is the latest in a well-documented and disturbing pattern of analysts making misleading interpretations to support the prosecution’s case and explain away evidence that defendants may be innocent,” 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.”

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences released an unprecedented report finding serious problems in forensic science nationwide and calling for the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Science. This independent, science-based agency would stimulate research to strengthen forensic disciplines, set standards for what science can be used in the criminal justice system and how it should be used, and oversee enforcement of those standards. For more on the report and efforts to implement its recommendations, visit the Just Science Coalition website.

Among the nation’s 241 DNA exonerations to date, approximately 50% involved unvalidated or improper forensic science, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “Every time problematic forensic science implicates an innocent person, an actual criminal goes free. Our system of justice will be more accurate, fair and reliable once we make sure forensic evidence is based on solid science, and we hope members of the U.S. House and Senate from Texas will help lead the way,” Scheck said.

In Sonnier’s case, the Harris County District Attorney’s office cooperated on an extensive reinvestigation and review of the conviction. The Innocence Project began representing Sonnier in 2006 after thoroughly researching his case for two years. Once Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos was elected last year and created a Conviction Integrity Unit to look closely at cases like this, prosecutors assisted with DNA testing and other investigation that led to the two apparent perpetrators. “Before the new D.A. was elected, prosecutors dragged their feet on this case, but the new Administration has been cooperative and focused on getting to the truth,” Scheck said.

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.

Between April 2008 and July 2009, multiple rounds of DNA testing were conducted on swabs from the rape kit, evidence from the victim’s car, stains on the victims clothing (her jeans, underwear and shirt) and a pubic hair from the rape kit. The testing was conducted by Orchid Cellmark, a private DNA lab with facilities in Texas that donated some of its services. Two DNA profiles were detected on the various items of evidence, and neither matched Sonnier. The profiles were run through the DNA database of convicted offenders, which yielded “hits” to two men – both of whom are convicted felons and known associates of each other, and one of whom is currently awaiting trial for an additional rape.

Sonnier, who was 23 years old when he was arrested for the 1985 rape and is 46 today, had prior convictions for burglaries. Around the time of his conviction in the 1985 rape case, he was also named as a suspect in a capital murder case along with two other men. The other two men were charged and convicted, but Sonnier was never charged. The reinvestigation of the 1985 rape included a review of the capital case, which uncovered solid evidence that further cleared him in that case.

Once he is released from custody, Sonnier plans to live with his mother in the Houston area. The Harris County District Attorney’s office will determine whether to join the Innocence Project’s legal papers seeking to vacate the conviction. Those papers will then be submitted to a local judge for a recommendation and forward to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for approval, which would fully exonerate Sonnier.


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