Twenty-five years after she was first accused of the arson-murder of her uncle, 68-year-old Sonia Cacy on November 2 was finally exonerated by Texas’ highest criminal court, a move that clears the way for her to seek compensation from the state for her decades-long ordeal.
Cacy’s conviction for a crime that never happened is a prime example of the devastating consequences of allowing junk science into the courtroom, of the need for continuing education of forensic practitioners, and for the robust review of convictions that may have been tainted by outdated, or imagined, science.
In fact, arguably, it was Cacy’s case that set in motion a series of events that would eventually culminate in a unique partnership between the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas state fire marshal, designed to review old arson-related criminal cases in order to ferret out convictions based on unsupportable fire science. “Sonia’s case is a lesson to the entire criminal justice system of how important it is to keep bad science out of court,” said Gary Udashen, president of the IPTX and Cacy’s longtime attorney.
The fire that engulfed the home that Cacy shared with her uncle Bill Richardson in the far West Texas town of Fort Stockton broke out in the pre-dawn hours of November 10, 1991. Cacy escaped the conflagration through her bedroom window and after knocking on her neighbors’ doors seeking help, returned to the house, frantically trying to get back inside. Her uncle was still in there, she told a neighbor, and she had to help him. She was unsuccessful; the 75-year-old perished in the blaze.
It wasn’t the first time a fire had broken out at Richardson’s home. On November 2, there were two separate fires — one in a storeroom and another in the home office that originated in a box of electrical devices sitting beneath a set of drapes. Though exactly how the fires started remained undetermined, the state would eventually come up with its own theory: Cacy had set the blazes in order to test the response time of the local fire department.