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Man convicted of rape freed after DNA tests

Image: Ernest Sonnier
Family and friends embrace Ernest Sonnier upon his release from the Harris County jail on Friday in Houston.Karen Warren / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A man who spent 23 years in prison for a kidnapping and rape that DNA tests show he may not have committed was released on bond Friday to his joyful family.

State district Judge Michael McSpadden asked for an expedited release for Ernest Sonnier, 46, who was convicted of a 1985 sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison. The Innocence Project, a national organization working to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, began conducting new tests last year that cast doubt on his guilt, attorneys said.

Sonnier was released on his own recognizance. He will wear a GPS monitoring device and be supervised as a condition of his release while attorneys move to have him officially exonerated.

As Sonnier walked through the elevator doors, family members who had earlier filled the courtroom rushed to hug and kiss the man some had only seen behind bars. With his mother and aunt at his side, Sonnier said he worried that he would never see his mother again.

"In jail everyone tells the same story but I told everyone I was innocent," he said. "The evidence was on the table that I wasn't the guy."

Summing up the family's thoughts was Sonnier's mother, Altha Davis: "I'm just so happy," she said.

Innocence Project
Sonnier will become the sixth man to be released from prison after challenging results from the Houston Police Department crime lab. Inaccuracies and impropriety at the lab has cast doubts on hundreds of convictions, and the Harris County District Attorney's office has appointed a team to re-investigate more than 160 cases.

"This is yet another example that the criminal justice system is flawed," said attorney Alba Morales of the Innocence Project. "This case had all the hallmarks of wrongful conviction."

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, said this week that misleading testimony from a crime lab analyst that favored the prosecution and unreliable eyewitness identification put Sonnier behind bars.

The victim of the 1985 attack identified Sonnier, who was 23 at the time, nearly six months afterward. But Scheck said tests showed that semen stains on the woman's jeans were blood type O, while Sonnier's blood type is B.

Sonnier's case piqued the interest of Innocence Project attorneys who knew other cases at the Houston lab had come into question. After their 18-month investigation, his attorneys said subsequent DNA tests connected two convicted felons to the rape, potentially clearing Sonnier.

Sonnier's father, Herman Davis, said the day his son went to prison brought "a lot of pain, hurt, and agony," he said. Davis plans to serve smothered chicken and rice, the meal that used to be his son's favorite.

"We will be comfortable and at ease for the first time in a long time," the retired truck driver said.

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