DALLAS (AP) - Convicted of setting her uncle on fire, Sonia Cacy has waited two decades to clear her name and challenge the case against her, which rested on science the state now acknowledges was wrong.
She’ll get that chance Monday, in the same far West Texas city where she remembers her young son tearfully chasing after her when the jury found her guilty of murder.
Fire investigation experts have spent years trying to change attitudes about arson cases like Cacy’s, which they say was based on guesswork, not science. But proving innocence has been difficult in this realm of science that’s less clear than DNA testing or other means criminal-justice advocates use to free the wrongfully convicted.
Experts say that some old cases rely on guesswork to define what a particular burn pattern or sign might say about the cause of a fire. Officials have also tried to improve education for fire inspectors after decades of cases in which undertrained investigators drew the wrong conclusions.
That’s called some convictions to come into question - and there may be more that need to be examined.
“A typical bad investigator is going to do 5,000 cases in his career, and they are perfectly capable of getting it wrong every single time,” chemist Gerald Hurst, a fire expert, said in an interview. “And of course, once a deed is done, district attorneys think it’s their duty to defend the indictment.”
There haven’t been many reversals in the courtroom yet. Cacy’s case could be among the first, as evidence will be debated during this week’s two-day hearing at the courthouse in Fort Stockton.
Cacy’s attorneys hope a judge will recommend that her murder conviction be overturned.
“My worst memory of the court was when they found me guilty and my son chased me down the hall, trying to hold my legs and stuff when they handcuffed me,” Cacy said.
Cacy, 66, was convicted in 1993 of murdering her uncle, Bill Richardson, at the small house they shared in Fort Stockton. Prosecutors say she poured gasoline on Richardson as he was sleeping and dropped a lit match; she wanted to profit from his newly signed will making her his sole beneficiary, they said.
Jurors then heard from a San Antonio expert who reviewed tests on Richardson’s clothing and found evidence of gasoline. But several experts who have seen those test results now say that expert misread the tests, and there was no proof of gasoline.
Autopsy results also showed Richardson’s blood did not have heavy amounts of carbon monoxide, as would be expected of someone who died of smoke inhalation. Instead, his body showed signs he’d died of a heart attack. He also had a history of setting accidental fires in his home, sometimes with lit cigarettes.
A panel sponsored by the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office in 2013 ruled the investigation did not meet “modern-day scientific standards,” and the cause of the fire should be listed as undetermined.
Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but paroled in 1998 - just five years after her conviction. The Texas parole board does not comment on its decisions, but it received reports from Hurst and other scientists who examined her case.
Prosecutors in Fort Stockton hired a scientist who reviewed the chemical tests for the upcoming hearing and agreed that there wasn’t evidence of gasoline. But they say there’s still enough evidence to support Cacy’s conviction: They accuse Cacy of repeatedly changing her story and trying to run into the burning house, impeding firefighters with her “aggressive interference.” They also point to Richardson’s will as a potential motive, though Cacy’s lawyers say Richardson’s estate was almost worthless.
“Scientific evidence was not needed for the guilty finding,” prosecutors said in a court filing.
As advocates continued to press her case, Cacy has tried to rebuild her life. She has moved to Aransas Pass, a Gulf Coast town near her two sons. She’s been denied numerous jobs and apartments due to the murder conviction. She doesn’t drive and has to get rides to appointments with her parole officer.
She hopes that will change after this week’s hearing.
“The day Uncle Bill died was the worst day of my life,” she said, adding: “I want my kids to have a cleared mother when I’m gone.”
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