Another innocent man is free in Texas. Ernest Sonnier was released from custody on Friday after DNA testing implicated two different men in the 1986 rape for which Sonnier was convicted. Sonnier has spent twenty-three years in prison, always maintaining his innocence.
The release of Ernest Sonnier is just the latest case that highlights the ongoing problem of wrongful convictions in Texas. In May, Jerry Lee Evans was freed after DNA testing proved another man committed the crime. He spent twenty-two years in prison. And in March, The Justice Project published Convicting the Innocent: Texas Justice Derailed, which highlights thirty-nine other cases of wrongful conviction in Texas.
Like many other wrongful conviction cases, Sonnier’s conviction was based on the faulty testimony of a forensic analyst. Blood type testing completed shortly after the crime showed no trace of Sonnier’s blood type. But the analyst never mentioned this at trial, instead testifying that the lack of evidence pointing to Sonnier was simply a result of circumstances of the crime. Knowing that the prosecution was looking for a conviction, this analyst created a new theory of the crime that did not match the evidence or any of his notes.
Ernest Sonnier was another victim of the Harris County crime lab. Inaccurate evidence, improperly conducted testing, and erroneous testimony have caused at least seven men to spend time behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a report calling for, among other things, funding to assist all forensic laboratories in the states to become independent from law enforcement agencies. Only when crime labs are independent from the state can we expect a more fair and unbiased examination of forensic evidence. Independence will help deter analysts from feeling like members of the “crime fighting team,” and will help to assure that the most accurate evidence is being presented at trial.
Ernest Sonnier’s release is just another reminder of the continuing struggle we face as we attempt to fix our nation’s broken criminal justice system. Problems with our nation’s forensic science labs continue to emerge, and until serious reforms are enacted, innocent people will still be in danger of wrongful convictions.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.