Texas fire review panel flags murder case


NOMAAN MERCHANT, Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) — Two decades after she was convicted of murdering her uncle by setting him on fire, a Texas woman has the backing of a state panel that examines arson investigations for problems.

Sonia Cacy was convicted of murder for the 1991 death of her uncle, Bill Richardson, in their home in the West Texas city of Fort Stockton. A doctor who examined Richardson’s body testified he was alive when the fire started. Another expert said he thought an accelerant was used in the blaze.

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But members of the Science Advisory Workgroup, established by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, say those claims are inaccurate. Fire Marshal Chris Connealy sent an August letter to Pecos County prosecutors saying the investigation used at trial cannot be supported under “present day scientific standards.”

The letter says the fire could not have been judged as caused by gasoline under current lab standards, nor could Richardson have been judged to have been alive when the fire ignited.

Some older arson cases are coming under scrutiny as fire investigation science has changed. The State Fire Marshal’s office is working with outside experts and wrongful-conviction advocates to look at potentially problematic cases — a rare collaboration between officials who are often at odds.

The panel, which first convened in January, has flagged a Waco-area man’s murder conviction for setting his house on fire and killing his two stepsons, as well as a Houston-area man’s arson conviction.

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Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but was paroled in 1998 after just five years. She’s now 66 and lives with a niece near Granbury, in North Texas. Other than a short stint in jail after a 2011 arrest for driving while intoxicated, she hasn’t had any parole violations. Cacy said she gets by on Social Security payments and has struggled for 15 years with the stigma of her conviction every time she applies for a place to live or find a job.

“As soon as you write down you’re a felon, and they ask what it’s for, it’s ridiculous,” Cacy said.

An appeal of her conviction by the Innocence Project of Texas is pending, with no hearings expected until early next year.

Rod Ponton, the district attorney handling Cacy’s case, questioned whether the workgroup’s work was appropriate and said there was “abundant evidence” of Cacy’s guilt, but declined to say what he thought was the strongest.

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“Her conviction was not solely based on fire evidence,” Ponton said. “It’s vastly different than some of the other cases that have been written about.”

Fire investigations in Texas have come under heightened criticism from wrongful-conviction advocates, particularly after the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was condemned for a deadly house fire that killed his three daughters. Questions and publicity from the Willingham case drove a state review and several recommendations for improved use of fire science.