Sonia Cacy, who was wrongfully convicted by a Fort Stockton jury in 1993 of burning her uncle to death, has at last been declared actually innocent. On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted relief on several grounds, concluding her attorney had failed her at trial, and that the evidence used to convict her was not only false, but rooted in unreliable science.
One of the seminal arson cases in Texas history, Cacy’s ordeal has entangled the state fire marshall’s office and nearly all of the country’s top arson experts, many of whom have maintained for years that the prosecution’s witness had badly misinterpreted a test for accelerants. Cacy was paroled in 1998 based on the work of a chemist named Gerald Hurst, but she has fought to clear her name ever since.
In recent years, the evidence against her has collapsed. In 2014 Pecos County District Attorney Rod Ponton, whose terms ends in January after a primary defeat, saw his own arson expert dispute the very premise of the conviction. Then, the now-retired Bexar County toxicologist who initially testified at Cacy’s 1993 trial to the presence of an accelerant on uncle Bill Richardson’s clothing dropped a bombshell: his lab had been contaminated.
Ponton’s case appeared to be on its last legs when the jurist assigned to make a recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals grilled him during oral arguments in June. Judge Bert Richardson (no relation to Bill) managed to elicit from Ponton an admission that he didn’t know whether an accelerant had been present at the scene at all. As the evidence crumpled, Ponton passed the case over to State Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McMinn in July. Once she’d had a chance to evaluate the evidence, she threw her support behind Cacy’s bid to clear her name. “Our office decided to join the defense in asking the Court to set aside the conviction in this case because we believed that was the correct result, based on the new evidence,” McMinn told Texas Monthly.
Today’s opinion from the CCA is pro forma, but after long years of fighting it has delivered to Cacy the words she’s sought since her release from prison nearly two decades ago. The case could technically go back to trial, but the odds of that are about as high as snow flurries in a Fort Stockton July. “There has never been a case in Texas where Court of Criminal Appeals has said somebody’s actually innocent and a DA was crazy enough to retry them,” says Gary Udashen, Cacy’s lawyer.
The news couldn’t have come soon enough for Cacy, who is ill, and has been in and out of the hospital over the last several months. “In addition to being in poor health, she’s destitute, and has been destitute for years,” Udashen says.
With a murder conviction hanging around her neck, Cacy has never been able to secure a good job, or even an apartment on her own. Prison bars aren’t the only obstacle to a normal life.
Udashen will now begin the process of seeking compensation from the comptroller for the years his client spent locked up for a crime the CCA now affirms was simply a tragic accident. Her uncle was a heavy smoker, and arson experts have always suspected the deadly fire—and Cacy’s ordeal—began with nothing more than a cigarette.