August 10, 2009 6:10 AM

Excuse me? Where do I go to get my life back?

HOUSTON -- 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.... 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.

Imagine this scenario if you can. You're sent to prison at 23 for a rape you didn't commit. Despite physical evidence that seems to in no way implicate you, the jury is swayed by the victim's testimony and the fact that she picked out your picture from a photo lineup. So, off to prison you go, where you do your best to make the most of a miserably unfair and unjust situation. Twenty-three years later, along comes DNA technology, which proves what probably should have been accepted as fact all along: you're innocent. Out the door you go, a free man.

Great. NOW what? What do you do when you've lost what should have been the best and most productive days of your life? Instead of marrying, raising a family, perhaps even enjoying the fruits of a career, you're now essentially a human castoff. So where DO you go to get your life back? Who's going to reimburse you the money you never made? Who's going to set up the retirement account you've never had a chance to contribute to? Who's going to provide you with the family you were denied to opportunity to build?

Where do you go to get your life back?

I realize that justice is blind. I understand that our judicial system is an imperfect system imperfectly administered by imperfect human beings. Mistakes get made. That's the unfortunate, sad reality...and one that's unlikely to change. In my mind, then, the question becomes very simple: What do we do to make up for this sort of error? While there's no way to restore 23 stolen years to Ernest Sonnier, do we not have a responsibility to him? We as a society stole half of Sonnier's life, what should have been his best years. Do we merely walk away with an "Oops...our bad!" and call it all good?

We simply cannot steal 23 years of a man's life without incurring some responsibility for what he's lost. Not that Sonnier can ever be made whole, of course, but if we are to have any claim to humanity, we must come to grips that we owe him in a big way. While no amount of money could ever begin to compensate for the years that were ripped away from him, it seems reasonable to posit that we at the very least owe him a huge leg up. If we admit that our judicial system is an imperfect construct...which it most certainly is...then we must admit to having a responsibility to help those innocent souls harmed by it.

If justice delayed truly is justice denied, the Ernest Sonnier can lay claim to having been horribly wronged. To his credit, he seems to have not been embittered by the experience, so perhaps there's hope for him to make the most of what time he has remaining. We- specifically, the people of Harris County- owe him a debt that can never truly be repaid...not that an effort shouldn't be made to meet this obligation.

Ernest Sonnier deserves better. And Texas really needs to get it's $#!& together.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Cluth published on August 10, 2009 6:10 AM.

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