State Fire Marshal Attempts To Get Arson Evidence Reviewed; West Texas DA Attempts To Stop Him
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Cameron Todd Willingham became famous in death after the arson science used to convict him of murder and send him to death row wasdebunked. The debunking came in 2009 when the Texas Forensic Science Commission investigation concluded that “a finding of arson could not be sustained” in his case. But Willingham’s conviction is not the only arson case to come under scrutiny. Chuck Lindell of the Austin American-Statesman reports that State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy has been looking into other cases, including that of Sonia Cacy, who was convicted in 1993 of murdering her uncle by dousing him in gasoline and setting him on fire. Cacy was paroled six years into a 99-year prison sentence, which is something of a rarity, but her conviction hasn’t been overturned. Connealy’s investigation, Lindell writes, has:
also drawn the ire of a West Texas prosecutor who, upset at the questions raised about a 1993 murder conviction, has moved to shut down the reviews.
Rod Ponton, district attorney of a four-county area that includes Fort Stockton, believes the fire marshal overstepped his authority by examining—and discrediting—evidence used by his office to convict Sonia Cacy of dousing her uncle with gasoline and setting him alight.
In a letter dated Oct. 1, Ponton asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to determine that the fire marshal has “no authority to make sweeping legal pronouncements on 20-year-old criminal cases.”
Abbott, who is running for governor, has until early April to deliver his opinion on the legality of the reviews.
Perhaps Ponton was inspired to make his request to the Attorney General because of the opinion that Abbott issued in the Willingham case, in which he found that the Forensic Science Commission “lacks the authority to take any action” related to old evidence. But Ponton’s position has a couple of problems. First, the Forensic Science Commission now does have the authority to take action in these cases, as the legislature passed SB 1238 over the summer, which specifically empowered the FSC to do so.
Furthermore, as Texas criminal justice blog Grits For Breakfast points out, this re-examination isn’t being led by the Forensic Science Commission at all—it’s been undertaken by the Fire Marshal’s Office on its own:
Ponton’s stance in his request relies on a fiction: that the fire marshal is acting as an agent of the FSC in its review of old arson cases. While it’s true the FSC recommended the agency undertake such a review, they actually rejected Cacy’s case and the FSC has never formally undertaken an investigation in the matter. The fire marshal took up Cacy’s and several other arson cases involving bad science on their own steam, not as the FSC’s stalking horse. […] The fire marshal’s review took no position on Cacy’s guilt or innocence—they only examined the validity of forensic testimony at her trial.
One thing’s for sure: politics and science mix like oil and water. Remember that in the Willingham case, the Forensic Science Commission experienced a surprising shake-up in its membership two days before it was scheduled to hear evidence; Governor Rick Perry replaced the head of the FSC with John Bradley, a man less inclined to question the science behind the conviction. Eventually Bradley was also replaced and the FSC was allowed to get back to its business: investigating forensic science. Hopefully Connealy will be allowed to do the same.