Not every injustice ends when the falsely accused walks out of prison. In 1993, Sonia Cacy was convicted of dousing her uncle Bill Richardson with an accelerant and setting him aflame in their Fort Stockton home. She has always maintained her innocence. But even after she was paroled in 1998—she served six years of a 99-year sentence—the murder conviction stayed on her record, making her guilty in the eyes of the world and tethering her by law to a parole officer. For nearly two decades, she has lived on the margins, getting by on the kindnesses of supporters and her family, never able to wash away the stain from her past. But on Monday, after numerous trials, retrials, appeals, and investigations, Texas Criminal Court of Appeals judge Bert Richardson recognized the same thing she has proclaimed since the beginning: evidence in Cacy’s case supports “actual innocence,” the legal term for blamelessness in both law and fact. The case now goes to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for final benediction.
Cacy’s journey through the legal system has been long, winding, and complicated. During at punishment retrial in 1996, her new attorney enlisted Dr. Gerald Hurst, the late Cambridge-educated chemist from Austin, to evaluate the forensic evidence that clinched conviction against her. Hurst discovered that the original tests, conducted by Joe Castorena of the Bexar County Forensics Lab, had been completely misread. The results didn’t find the indicators of an accelerant as he claimed. Castorena, a toxicologist by training, had in fact identified the products of pyrolysis—compounds created by burning plastic, which in many ways are similar to those of an accelerant.
Hurst was convinced these compounds came from rubberized curtains and a polyurethane foam mattress, both of which were found burned at the crime scene. Cacy’s uncle was a chain smoker who was notoriously careless with lit cigarettes, one of the most common causes of household fires. Yet in spite of the evidence, a jury affirmed Cacy’s conviction in 1996 and re-sentenced her to life in prison.
By 1998, Hurst had become obsessed with the case, and had enlisted a panel of at least a dozen respected arson experts and pathologists, all of whom concluded that the fire was accidental, and that Richardson—a man of poor health—had died of a heart attack, possibly while attempting to extinguish the flames. The Board of Pardon and Paroles was moved by the reports and promptly released Cacy that year. Now, they would go about the work of establishing her innocence.
Her attorneys filed a complaint with the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2010, but they could not have encountered a more unsympathetic audience; the commission’s presiding officer, John Bradley, was the law-and-order Williamson County district attorney who spent years opposing DNA testing in the Michael Morton case, testing that later cleared Morton of the murder of his wife. Bradley petitioned then-state attorney general Greg Abbott for a legal opinion preventing the commission from reviewing Cacy’s case. Abbott delivered, opining that any cases prior to the formation of the commission in 2005 were out of bounds—namely Cacy’s.
Her attorneys turned to the newly reformed State Fire Marshal’s Office, whose scientific advisory panel conducted a lengthy examination of the case and concluded that there was no evidence of arson. Cacy took the report to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2012, along with some shocking new evidence: Castorena, the toxicologist, admitted in a letter to her counsel, Dallas lawyer Gary Udashen, that the clothing samples he’d tested had been contaminated in either the morgue or the lab. Thus, his baffling reasoning went, anyone who didn’t know about the contamination couldn’t accurately interpret the results. Asked why he never reported this, Castorena replied, “nobody asked me.”
Richardson, the Court of Criminal Appeals jurist, who was then a senior visiting judge,* appeared dumbfounded at a hearing in July 2014. “How do you deal with the issue of contamination?” he pressed Pecos County district attorney Rod Ponton, who maintained that his predecessor, former district attorney Albert Valadez, had gotten it right the first time. “It’s a bigger concern because, quite frankly, in my entire career, both as a prosecutor and as a judge, I don’t think I’ve heard the rationale that nobody asked me, so I didn’t tell them.”
Ponton had by then conceded that there was likely no accelerant in the samples. He’d gone so far as to hire his own expert, and in the process further exacerbated the problem; his expert agreed with Cacy’s experts. Still, Ponton continued to busily paint himself into a logical corner. Without an accelerant, how does Cacy kill her uncle? “So just hypothetically,” Richardson began, “if there is no evidence of an accelerant used in this case, and that’s the State’s theory of the case, that’s how it started, all of the other factors are just motive or whatever, then what do you have?”
At the first trial, Castorena’s findings had been the linchpin for all other evidence. The medical examiner had ruled her uncle’s death a homicide based on the detection of an accelerant. The fire investigator testified that the fire was arson based on the medical examiner’s ruling of homicide. Without Castorena’s report, the entire case collapses.
“If it was contaminated or if there really wasn’t any evidence,” Richardson continued, “we can just fall back on everything else. My question is, how would you get beyond the elements of the offense in the indictment if you didn’t have any evidence that she lit him on fire? Because that’s what you used—that’s what the State used to support the indictment, that there was an accelerant used and placed on the victim.”
“And the jury is free to conclude,” Ponton countered lamely, “based upon the other evidence—”
Richardson cut him off. “I don’t even think it goes to the jury if that’s the case. I think at that stage, if a case is presented and they don’t meet the elements of the offense, at that point, there’s two things that can happen: the trial judge can just direct it out or it just gets reversed on appeal, regardless of what the jury does, if there’s not—if the evidence is not there.”
Richardson continued: “That’s my question. I mean, is it your position now that there was no accelerant or you just don’t know?”
“We don’t know,” the Ponton admitted.
Udashen, Cacy’s attorney, exposed the absurdity of his thinking. If the cops spot a person walking down the street and they suspect him of dealing drugs, they might stop and frisk him. If no drugs are found, they have to let him go. Following the logic Ponton used in Cacy’s case, Udashen said, the man would be charged with drug dealing anyway.
Richardson’s 100-plus-page findings of fact filed in Pecos County today meticulously dismantles the case against her. He found that her attorney was ineffective by failing to hire experts at trial; that Castorena, as a member of the prosecution, had withheld evidence by failing to disclose the contamination at the lab; and that the evidence has never proved what the prosecution says it does.
The document concludes with the two words Cacy has waited too long to hear. Judge Richardson’s finding are headed to the full Criminal Court of Appeals, which will either agree or disagree with his report. The justices could conceivably send the case back for a retrial, but without an accelerant there isn’t much of a case to prosecute. Udashen says Cacy’s innocence is so obvious that he expects the CCA to concur with Judge Richardson.
The last time I saw Cacy a couple of years ago, she was flat broke, living out of a shabby motel room on the outskirts of Fort Worth. A convicted murderer, she’d never been able to secure a good job, or find a nice place to live on her own. Her health was and is failing. She might have been released from prison, but she never really got her freedom back, or her good name, until today. But over these nearly 25 years of life lived beneath the shadow of her uncle’s death, Texas has accrued a debt to her that it can never repay.
*Clarification: An earlier version of this article failed to note that Judge Richardson was a senior visiting judge at the time of this hearing.