Ernest Sonnier freed in Houston after half his life in prison
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission
It was a scene replayed with alarming frequency in Texas: a 46-year-old man walked out of prison here Friday afternoon after spending 23 years behind bars for a sex crime that the evidence suggests he did not commit.
The man, Ernest Sonnier, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison largely on the strength of the victim’s testimony, even though the forensic evidence gathered from her body and clothes showed that someone with a blood type different from the defendant’s had raped her, lawyers from the Innocence Project in New York said.
“It’s just sloppy science, at best,” said Alba Morales, who represents Mr. Sonnier.
Well, “best” has little or nothing to do with justice in Texas. Especially if you’re Black.
Over the last 18 months, genetic testing of evidence found on the victim’s clothing and at the scene of the attack had yielded no trace of Mr. Sonnier, the Harris County district attorney’s office said. Instead, it has implicated two other men. Both are felons and known associates. One is awaiting trial for a different rape.
In light of the new evidence, Judge Michael McSpadden of Harris County District Court on Friday ordered Mr. Sonnier to be released pending further investigation, a first step toward exoneration, which under Texas law can be granted only by the state’s highest criminal court.
Donna Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said the state was not ready to concede Mr. Sonnier’s innocence, though prosecutors acknowledge that the new DNA tests cast strong doubt on the conviction. “There is a lot more legwork that needs to be done before we draw any conclusions,” Ms. Hawkins said.
Donna Hawkins is another predictable legal hack – guaranteed to reject science and justice equally. The perfect political prosecutor for Texas jurisprudence.
As he stood with his mother and extended family in the scorching sun outside the Harris County Jail, Mr. Sonnier said the justice system had broken down. He had lost two decades of life.
“The evidence was on the table that I wasn’t the guy, and they failed to do justice,” he said. “It’s lost. It’s lost. There is no way to make it up.”
Texas leads the nation in cases in which convicted men have been exonerated through DNA tests. Thirty-eight of the nation’s 241 people cleared since 1989 were convicted here, according to the Innocence Project, a charity dedicated to such cases.
There are Texans who stand up for justice. Who reject the racism that still defines much of law and justice in one of the least repentant of the Confederate States. They are not the majority of the electorate.