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Ernest Sonnier

Other Texas Exonerations with Innocence Organization Involvement
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On Christmas Eve 1985, a 24-year-old woman (E.K.), accompanied by her nine-year-old niece, was at a car wash in Houston, Texas when a man grabbed her from behind and punched her in the eye. Another man then put her in a headlock. E.K. yelled for her niece to run as the man and the accomplice forced her into the backseat of the car.

While one man held her in the back seat, the other man drove south toward San Antonio. E.K. told police that the man in the back seat sexually assaulted her. She said she was menstruating, and the man forced her to remove her tampon and throw it out the window before he assaulted her. She said that at some point, the car pulled over and the men traded positions. She was then sexually assaulted by the other man. E.K. said that both men raped her vaginally and anally, and both ejaculated.

At some point, the men pulled off of Interstate 10 and E.K. ran into some woods. The men chased her and grabbed her hair. She then fell down a ravine and pretended she was unconscious. When the men left, E.K. climbed back to the road, found her jeans, and managed to flag down a vehicle, which took her to a hospital in LaGrange, Texas.

A few weeks later, E.K.’s car was found stripped. The front seats were gone and the radio had been removed. Police recovered fingerprints from the vehicle and a stain was identified on a rear door panel.

About a month after the crime, detectives showed a photographic lineup to E.K. and she identified a man as one of her assailants. However, when she viewed a live lineup containing that man, she was unable to make any identification.

Six months after the crime, in June 1986, 23-year-old Ernest Sonnier was accused of breaking into a home in Houston and sexually assaulting a woman, identified as M.C.

Subsequently, Sonnier’s photograph was put into a photographic lineup and shown to E.K. E.K. identified him as the man who punched her in the eye and was the first to rape her in the back seat of the car. E.K. also identified Sonnier in a live lineup. E.K.’s niece was shown a videotape of the live lineup, and she also identified Sonnier.

On July 3, 1986, Sonnier was charged with aggravated sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping in the attack of E.K. He was also charged with burglary and aggravated sexual assault in the attack on M.C.

Sonnier went to trial in Harris County Criminal District Court in December 1986. E.K. identified him as one of the two attackers. E.K.’s niece identified Sonnier, although she said he looked different in court. The defense noted that E.K. had described the assailant who punched her as more than 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 160 to 170 pounds, while Sonnier was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 130 pounds.

A Houston police crime lab analyst testified that a hair from the rape kit was microscopically consistent with a hair from Sonnier. The analyst said she could not say the hair came from Sonnier to the exclusion of everyone else.

David Coffman, a police crime lab serologist, testified that he did not find any seminal fluid from the stain found on the car, but that he did detect seminal fluid in E.K.’s jeans and in the rape kit. He said Sonnier had blood type B and that he did not find any type B in the fluids—only type O, which was E.K.’s blood type.

In response to a hypothetical question from the prosecutor, Coffman said it was possible that a victim who was menstruating at the time of an assault would “flush out” any seminal fluid, leaving only the victim’s blood and not a perpetrator’s biological material.

The defense argued that since E.K. testified that both men ejaculated, the absence of material matching Sonnier’s blood type was evidence that he was not one of the attackers.

On December 10, 1986, the jury convicted Sonnier of aggravated kidnapping and acquitted him of the charge of aggravated sexual assault. He was sentenced to life in prison. The prosecution then dismissed the charges involving the attack on M.C.

In May 2007, the Innocence Project sought to obtain DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office agreed to the testing, and in August 2009, attorneys for the Innocence Project filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on DNA tests that implicated another man.

The petition said that the stain on the rear car door panel yielded a DNA profile. That profile was submitted to the FBI DNA database and linked to Kirk Jerome Thomas. A DNA profile obtained from the victim’s jeans was identified as belonging to Avery Breaux.

Sonnier’s DNA was not detected in any of the evidence. In addition, mitochondrial DNA testing excluded Sonnier as being the source of the hair found in the rape kit.

The petition also said that one of the fingerprints recovered from E.K.’s car was matched to Darrick Breaux, a brother of Avery Breaux. Sonnier’s lawyers contended that Sonnier was innocent, and that the Breaux brothers committed the crime. Kirk, the lawyers noted, had been known to associate with the Breaux family.

On August 7, 2009, Sonnier was released on bond, more than 23 years after his arrest in July 1986.

By the time that a hearing on the habeas petition was held in August 2016, the prosecution argued that the evidence did not exonerate Sonnier—that he took part in the crime with Avery Breaux. The evidence linking Kirk and Darrick Breaux to the car was the result of them having stripped and ransacked the car three weeks after the crime. It was not, the state contended, because they were involved in the abduction and rapes.

In May 2017, Harris County Criminal District Judge Michael McSpadden, who presided over Sonnier’s trial in 1986, refused to grant the writ. The judge ruled that the DNA evidence would not have made a difference at Sonnier’s trial. And although the attack on M.C. was not related to the attack on E.K., the judge included in his findings that additional DNA testing had identified Sonnier’s DNA in the rape kit taken in the long-dismissed M.C. sexual assault case.

The Innocence Project Appealed and in October 2017, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Judge McSpadden’s findings. The court granted the writ, vacated Sonnier’s conviction, and ordered a new trial. The appeals court said Sonnier had “shown that had the results of the new mitochondrial DNA testing been presented at trial, on the preponderance of the evidence he would not have been convicted for this offense.”

On June 1, 2018, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/13/2018
State:Texas
County:Harris
Most Serious Crime:Kidnapping
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1985
Convicted:1986
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes