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Judge: Woman in fatal arson case should be declared innocent

A West Texas woman should be found innocent of murder because her conviction and 99-year sentence were based on discredited scientific evidence, a state judge recommended Monday.

Sonia Cacy was convicted of setting a fire in her Fort Stockton home that killed her uncle, Bill Richardson, while he slept in 1991.

Her case became a rallying cry for reformers who argued that conclusions reached by poorly trained arson investigators produced convictions that could no longer be supported, including Cacy’s.

Experts, including now-deceased chemist Gerald Hurst of Austin, presented evidence to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole indicating that Richardson, a 76-year-old who smoked up to three packs of cigarettes a day, died of a heart attack while smoking in bed. Evidence of multiple cigarette burns on sheets and around the bed were ignored by arson investigators, they said.

In an unusual move for the notoriously strict board, it granted Cacy parole after she served only six years in prison.

Volunteer lawyers later moved to have her declared innocent, leading to Monday’s findings by visiting Judge Bert Richardson, who noted that new evidence casts doubt on lab tests that found gasoline on the clothes worn by Cacy’s uncle.

That evidence showed that a tester falsified the evidence receipt form for the man’s clothing and tests performed by another employee of the Bexar County Forensic Science Center detected no accelerants, Bert Richardson said.

The judge’s order will go the the Court of Criminal Appeals, which as the state’s highest criminal court has the authority to issue declarations of innocence. Bert Richardson was elected to the court while he had the Cacy case under consideration and will not participate in its review of her case.

Cacy’s innocence also was supported by a State Fire Marshal’s Office review that discredited evidence used to convict Cacy.

Monday’s order criticized District Attorney Rod Ponton for attempting to halt the office’s review of Cacy’s case by seeking an attorney general’s opinion finding that the agency lacked the authority to review old arson cases. Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott disagreed, and the reviews continued.

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