Friday, 7 August 2009

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

Ernest Sonnier's mom said she always knew he was innocent.

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.

“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. Both of them are in prison for other crimes.

Sadly, Sonnier may not be the only person wrongly put in prison. 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.

Lycros says you can’t give the person back the years they lost in prison.

“You have to make sure that it was not in vain,” 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.

“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.”


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