The state’s highest criminal court declared Sonia Cacy innocent of murder on Wednesday, ending a long legal battle in a West Texas case featuring bad arson science, falsified evidence and a rarely granted parole from state officials.
Cacy, now in poor health and living with her son in South Texas, was convicted of setting a fire in her Fort Stockton home that killed her uncle, Bill Richardson, while he slept in 1991. She was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Supporters who continued working on her behalf, including now-deceased chemist Gerald Hurst of Austin, uncovered evidence showing 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.
Arson investigators ignored multiple cigarette burns on Richardson’s sheets and around his bed, and they failed to acknowledge the significance of an autopsy report showing no smoke in his lungs, indicated he was already dead when the fire started. court records show.
Presented with the new evidence, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles took the unusual step of granting Cacy parole after she had served only six years of her sentence, and efforts began to have the courts formally acknowledge her innocence — which the Court of Criminal Appeals granted in an 8-0 ruling Wednesday.
The two-page opinion did not discuss reasons for the ruling, though two judges filed a concurring opinion stating that they believed Cacy did not prove herself innocent, but merely presented enough new evidence to make it unlikely that she would have been convicted had jurors seen the information.
Judge Bert Richardson did not participate in the court’s deliberations or ruling because he oversaw Cacy’s case as a visiting judge before his election to the appeals court.
In his findings in the case, Richardson had recommended that Cacy be found innocent, noting that new evidence also cast doubt on lab tests that had found gasoline on the clothes worn by Cacy’s uncle. Investigators later showed that a tester falsified the evidence receipt for the man’s clothing, and that tests performed by another employee of the Bexar County Forensic Science Center detected no accelerants on the clothes, the judge determined.
Gary Udashen, Cacy’s lawyer, praised the ruling.
“I think Sonia’s case is a very clear example of how bad science in court can cause such an egregious injustice that it ruins people’s lives,” he said. “Texas is leading the country in dealing with the issues of bad science, and the court’s opinion here is another instance of the Court of Criminal Appeals taking steps to rectify this problem.”
Cacy’s innocence also was supported by a review of old arson cases by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which determined that the arson finding in her case was not supported by modern science.