Burning Injustice

Shaky evidence sent Sonia Cacy to prison for burning her beloved uncle to death. Now she's destitute and fighting the state to clear her name.

Retired State District Judge Alex Gonzalez, who presided over both trials, wasn't as confident. "Personally, if the lawyer that handled the second trial came before me instead of the jury, I would have ruled not guilty."

In September, Governor Rick Perry signed into law a bill authored by Senator John Whitmire, which provided an avenue for those convicted on junk science to petition the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. There are no guarantees. Her attorney, Gary Udashen, Innocence Project of Texas president, is waiting for a hearing in Fort Stockton and, ultimately, before the appeals court. Her first real shot at clearing her name could come as early as April.

Inside a queasy green Motel 6 in White Settlement earlier this month, Cacy's trembling hand held a cigarette to her mouth. She'd been hospitalized days before for recurrent pneumonia, and her 66-year-old bird-boned body had withered considerably. Her lungs rattled as she coughed. She was, on that morning, homeless, having recently moved out of a place in Granbury she had shared with some extended family. She said she had to get out of there, and called it a "bad situation."

Dallas attorney Gary Udashen has represented Cacy for years.
Can Turkyilmaz
Dallas attorney Gary Udashen has represented Cacy for years.
Sonia Cacy, nervous but hopeful, waits for a bus to take her to her son's home in Port Aransas.
Brantley Hargrove
Sonia Cacy, nervous but hopeful, waits for a bus to take her to her son's home in Port Aransas.


In the corner of her small room, she had piled clothing and other belongings she could not take with her on the journey. She planned to catch a bus to Port Aransas, to stay with her son and his family in their RV, and she worried that her two suitcases would be over the weight limit if she didn't cull their contents. Tears leaked from her green eyes. She apologized for crying, and stuffed a gallon bag filled with orange prescription bottles into a carry-on as she repacked. Steeling herself for the call to her parole officer, to inform him she was leaving the county, she took a deep drag from her cigarette and poured two cans of Coke into a plastic cup. North Texas was in the middle of a hard freeze that day, and she was told her parole officer would not be in the office.

She looked over the dim room that had been her home for nearly two weeks, and over the belongings she could not bring with her. Her two suitcases were loaded into a reporter's car, and she set off over a frozen highway, bumping over bridges encased in brown ice. As front loaders rumbled past, scouring the asphalt, she talked about the song her father had written for her, "Sonia Jean, the Sunshine Girl." She spoke about how Richardson always brought white stray cats to her bedside when she was sick as a child, to her delight. Those memories had sustained her when she was locked up. "I thought I was going to die in prison," she said. "Ninety-nine years." They sustain her still.

She calmed down some when she reached the bus station in Fort Worth. With no car, she said she hadn't been sure how she would get there. The driver announced over the PA that the bus to Corpus Christi was boarding. Cacy took a deep breath. She was bound for another new start that she hoped wouldn't end like all the others. The tiny woman stepped out into the cold air and onto the Greyhound bus, smiling, carrying in both hands all she owned in the world.

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My Voice Nation Help

For all the scientific evidence gathering and critical analysis one would expect in an arson investigation, the outcomes in this case and others were based on assumptions and a refusal to question the status quo. What happened to Cameron Willingham is both a tragedy and an outrage. Thank God the tide is changing with regard to fire investigation. I hope for the innocent to be vindicated and freed before it's too late.

ScottsMerkin topcommenter

loafer dude knocks one out of the park.  Great read