In the this week's cover story, we examined the case of Sonia Cacy, the Fort Stockton woman convicted in 1993 of setting her uncle ablaze with gasoline. In the years since, the evidence against her hasn't withstood scrutiny.
Cacy was paroled six years into a 99-year sentence based on expert testimony that found the conviction could not be supported by the evidence. This August, an expert panel convened by the State Fire Marshal's Office concluded that the scientific evidence against her -- all of it -- had been badly misinterpreted by the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office.
See also: Burning Injustice
Cacy is now challenging her conviction under a state law that allows an automatic appeal for anyone convicted on science that doesn't stand up to a present-day examination. In this case, it is testimony that a test on clothing remnants from the victim was positive for an accelerant, It wasn't, as a number of chemists have concluded. And it's testimony that the victim died of thermal burns. He actually died of a heart attack, according to pathologists from the Cook County, Illinois, medical examiner's office and from the University of Miami School of Medicine and many others. He died, they say, before the fire destroyed his body.
But District Attorney Rod Ponton intends to fight Cacy's bid for exoneration. He's already sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, seeking to suppress the fire marshal's findings. Ponton sent another letter to the fire marshal, outlining why he believes the conviction should stand, even without the most persuasive physical evidence. Ponton shared this letter with me, and I'd like to argue a few points.
"The incriminating statement from Ms. Cacy to the next-door neighbor, and later to the Police, was that Bill Richardson woke her up in her bedroom, told her to leave through her bedroom window, and that he would get the dogs....Ms. Cacy was in her unburned bedroom when Bill awakened her. If Ms. Cacy's story were true, Bill Richardson would have exited the house through the backdoor, and not returned through the blazing hot fire in the living room."
Ponton neglects to mention testimony from the neighbor indicating that Cacy seemed confused about whether she had imagined being wakened by her uncle, or whether it had actually happened. This would have been around 6 in the morning, and Cacy later admitted that she had had a few cocktails before going to bed at around 3:30 that morning. If her memory was a little hazy after waking up to a burning home, there may be reason. Or it's also possible she imagined it. Or maybe he yelled to her from the living room and never actually tapped her on the shoulder. This was not a large house.
Ponton also assumes here that the fire was blazing when this all occurred. Because no trace of an accelerant was ever found, Cacy's expert testified that this was likely a slow-starting fire that began with a cigarette -- one of the most common causes of fires. Bill Richardson smoked several packs a day. If, as any number of experts have found, he died of heart attack, he may have died as he attempted to fight the fire. In the corner where he was found, there was a trash bin beneath a leak in the roof, filled with rainwater.
The Fort Stockton fire chief testified to seeing something shiny and metallic smoking and sizzling in Richardson's clenched fist. The nearby window was a casement type that you had to crank open. The crank was missing its handle.
Ponton challenges the heart attack finding by placing it at odds with the statement Cacy gave within hours of losing her uncle and her home. Once again, he ignores testimony from her neighbor that she was confused about whether she'd actually heard him.
When Cacy told firefighters that Richardson was still inside, Ponton questions how she could have known this. The logical thing for him to do, he posits, would have been to flee through the backdoor. Why didn't she look in the backyard for him, he asks. Cacy, however, testified during her new sentencing hearing in 1996 that she checked the backyard for her uncle and didn't see him. That's when she began to truly panic.
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Next, Ponton insinuates that because there was "not a single fire" in Richardson's house until Cacy moved back in with her uncle, that she must be behind the suspicious fires in the weeks before his death. The trial transcripts, however, are rife with testimony from various family members who say Richardson was always starting little accidental fires around the house. Furthermore, Cacy wasn't some newcomer. She'd lived with Richardson for years, and had left temporarily to care for an injured son and her estranged and ailing husband, Billy Cacy.
Ponton points to her singed hair as evidence that she may have set the fire. For this to be the case, according to the prosecution's theory, she would have had to thoroughly douse the man in gas, in an enclosed room now pungent with flammable vapors, set fire to him and escape without her nylon nightie fusing to her body and causing horrific burns. There was no universal agreement among witnesses about whether her hair was singed. And if it was, it stands to reason that this may have happened as she climbed over the back of a crawling police officer in the doorway to get inside, with smoke billowing out into the night. The officer testified to seeing orange flames in the smoke.
There were, Ponton says, stains of human blood in the living room that "match the genetic markers of Ms. Cacy." That they would find genetic material from a woman who lived there for years isn't surprising. What's more, the test was performed in Bexar County either under the supervision of or by a man named Fred Zain, who'd been drubbed out of a crime lab in West Virginia for falsifying blood tests. He was arrested in 1994, the year after Cacy's trial, for perjury.
Lastly, Ponton faults her for not climbing back through the window she escaped from, claiming it was too hot and that she couldn't breathe. This contradicted, Ponton says, the fact that little smoke or heat damage was found in her room. Investigators did find a film of soot coating everything. The door to her bedroom was a jar, and one of the dogs lay dead near her bed. Her daughter-in-law testified that she had to toss all her clothing, even after multiple washings, because the soot and smell wouldn't come out.