In Texas, the most famous case of archaic arson investigation techniques was the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was killed by the state of Texas despite evidence of possible innocence in 2004. He was convicted in the deaths of his three daughters. Wrongful convictions advocates and Willingham’s family have been trying for several years to clear his name, posthumously. But his case isn’t the only one in question. 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 forensic investigations for issues.
Sonia Cacy was convicted in 1991 for the murder of her uncle, Bill Richardson, in their home in West Texas. A doctor who examined Richardson’s body testified he was alive when the fire began. Another expert testified that an accelerant was used. 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 also says the fire cannot be judged as caused by gasoline under current lab standards, nor could Richardson be judge alive when the fire started. Older arson cases are coming under scrutiny because of new advancements in fire investigation science. In a rare, but much need collaboration, the State Fire Marshal’s office is working with outside experts and wrongful-conviction advocates to look at potentially problematic cases. Cacy was not given death, like Willingham was, instead she was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but was paroled in 1998. She is currently 66 and lives with her niece in Texas. Other than a 2011 arrest for DUI, she has no parole violations. Cacy says she has struggled for 15 years with the stigma of her convictions and has to subsist on Social Security because it is difficult to find a place to live or work.
“As soon as you write down you’re a felon, and they ask what it’s for, it’s ridiculous,” Cacy said.
An appeal by the Innocence Project of Texas is currently pending in her case, but no hearings are expected to be held until 2014. Rod Ponton, the prosecutor handling Cacy’s case, questioned why the workgroup was looking at the case and whether it was appropriate or not. He says there is “abundant evidence” of guilt, but declined to elaborate.
“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.”
The panel, which first convened at the beginning of this year, has also flagged a Waco man’s murder conviction. He was convicted of setting his house on fire killing his two stepsons. As well as another Houston man’s arson conviction.
RELATED: WATCH FULL DOCUMENTARY: DEATH BY FIRE. CLICK HERE. — Did Texas execute an innocent man based upon flawed forensics?