Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"I Used To Be Mad..."

by Katherine Scardino

That’s what Ernest Sonnier told the reporter who asked how he felt after spending 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Harris County, Texas, now has the distinction of having convicted six innocent people that we know of. They are the six fortunate individuals who could scream loud enough to get the Texas Innocence Project to look at their cases and demand action. I am on the board of the Texas Innocence Project; I learned last week it has more than a thousand cases to review to determine if there is even one more out there who should be freed. That's in Texas alone. Only a handful of workers are willing to labor that hard for so many hours and so little pay.

Mr. Sonnier spent his 23 years in prison knowing he was innocent. His family knew he was innocent; his mother says she knew because he was at home with her.

How often do prosecutors hear that alibi? Yeah, right, home with mom. The law says that until someone is convicted, he is presumed innocent. Why is that so damn hard for prosecutors and judges to remember and honor? Why have we all become so prejudiced against people accused of committing crimes that we assume they are guilty, no evidence required? Just ask someone accused of sexual abuse of a child whether they felt their jury looked at them fairly.

So, what happened to Mr. Sonnier? He was convicted in 1986 for the 1985 aggravated kidnapping and rape of a woman who lived in Alief, Texas. Two men grabbed her and raped her repeatedly in their car until they stopped at a store, giving her the chance to flee and call police. DNA evidence was handled poorly by the prosecutor and the Houston Police Department Crime Lab. The newspaper article about Mr. Sonnier’s release used the phrase “faulty forensics." Translate that to “HPD Crime Lab technicians lied.” There are only two ways you can get “faulty forensics” - falsifying results and lying in court, or contaminating evidence, knowingly or not.

It was not unusual several years ago for crime lab technicians to assume they worked for the prosecution and that their test results should help prosecutors. Such skewed results meant some innocent people, like Mr. Sonnier, wasted their lives in prison.

I cannot, in my wildest dreams, see how anyone could maintain their sanity and humanity while locked in prison for a crime they did not commit. I can't imagine the thoughts that would course through my mind -- about the hopelessness, helplessness and sheer futility of life, not to mention my seething anger.

The repercussions of losing most of the good years of your life? How about the aging of yourself and your family? Your children, nieces and nephews are all grown after 23 years. Your parents may be dead or in failing health. Your health has most lik ely deteriorated because of poor medical facilities in prison or the aging process we all endur e. But we endure it in freedom, with access to the best medical facilities available. Mr. Sonnier barely had a doctor or medication, let alone access to Texas Medical Center.

The problem is simple: Arrogant power controlled by small minds. The solution is not so simple. It would be a large step forward if our judges and prosecutors really believed in the presumption of innocence.

So, Mr. Sonnier, how do you feel today? Are you angry?

“No”, he says... "I used to be mad...”

Bless your heart, sir. Our best wishes for the rest of your life.


Cheryl said...

May God Bless Ernest Sonnier & his family. He must be one hell of a man not to be furious!

I certainly hope he is going to receive some sort of commensation. I know money can not make up for all he has lost but they can at least give him enough to live on so that he might spend the rest of life making up for lost time with his loved ones.

Sheryl McCollum said...

The Innocence Project is a wonderful group and they done great things in Georgia as well. Thanks for the story about Mr. Sonnier.

Laura James said...

I'm so impressed with your presence on the project's board. 1,000 cases! As a lawyer I shudder at the thought of having to plow through that giant paper mountain. But it's so important to the innocent man (or two, or fifty) who might be buried in that massive pile. Best of luck to all