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A Burning Issue

The Innocence Project of Texas will launch a campaign today not only to exonerate Sonia Cacy, a woman who experts say was wrongly convicted of setting fire to her uncle, but also to overhaul of the use of "junk science" in the prosecution of criminal cases.

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When Sonia Cacy walked out of prison after serving six years of a 99-year sentence for murder, she told reporters that those were just her first steps toward freedom. To be truly free, she told the San Antonio Express-News in 1998, she wanted her name cleared. She wanted to be exonerated of a crime that many experts say she did not commit.

Twelve years later, Cacy is still not free despite multiple expert reports concluding that she did not douse her uncle with gasoline and light a fire that killed him and destroyed the small Fort Stockton home they shared. Now 63, she lives in Fort Worth and is on parole. “I have faith,” she says. “I held on through prison, and I’ve still got it. It’s still there.”

Today, at a news conference in Dallas, the Innocence Project of Texas will ask the Texas Forensic Science Commission to begin a process the nonprofit organization hopes will lead to Cacy’s exoneration — and, potentially, to an overhaul in the use of forensic science in criminal cases. “We’re starting on a serious long-term campaign to end the use of junk science in Texas courtrooms,” says Jeff Blackburn, the organization's chief counsel. Cacy’s case is one of several the Innocence Project plans to file with the commission and in Texas courts to challenge the use of arson investigation techniques, dog scent lineups and blood-spatter analysis that it believes have led to many wrongful convictions.

The Innocence Project’s complaint in the Cacy case comes just over a week after the commission decided to extend its investigation into the science used in another high-profile arson case: that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of lighting the house fire that killed his three daughters and was executed in 2004. Reports issued before and after Willingham’s death suggest he did not start the blaze and that investigators used outdated forensic techniques. Just as it appeared the commission would approve a report backed by the commission's chairman, John Bradley, that cleared investigators of wrongdoing, other commissioners demanded more information. “When we saw the level of interest in Willingham’s case that was on display, we decided it would be worthwhile to take this case to them, because we think it represents a much bigger cross-section of junk science used across this state,” Blackburn says. 

“People think Cameron Todd Willingham is just about whether Texas executed an innocent man, but for us it’s a lot deeper,” he says. “We’ve got hundreds of people in prison, if not thousands, for crimes they didn’t commit. They need to come out.”

Bradley would not comment about the complaint in the Cacy case and whether the commission might review the evidence, saying via e-mail that the commission's policy is to “avoid commenting on cases until resolved.” Asked about Blackburn’s assertion that an untold number of inmates could have been wrongly convicted, Bradley wrote, “That's a fairly broad, unsubstantiated claim that is not capable of rational reply on such short notice. Sounds to me like they are using you as their fundraising arm.”

Murder or tragic accident?

Cacy was convicted in 1993 after prosecutors told the jury she drunkenly tip-toed into the room where her uncle Bill Richardson was sleeping, poured gasoline on him and lit a match. Her motive, they said, was to get the money he left to her in his will. At the trial, the Bexar County medical examiner’s toxicologist told jurors that he found an accelerant like gasoline on Richardson’s clothes. Prosecutors alleged that Cacy paraded around in a short nightgown to distract firefighters and that she tried to hinder police and firefighters on the scene. 

After the conviction, arson expert Gerald Hurst reviewed the evidence that landed Cacy in prison. In 1998, he issued a report that summarized three years of investigative work he did with other experts. They concluded that there was no gasoline on Richardson’s clothing. “The analysis has been reviewed by numerous independent experts in arson debris analysis who concur that the State’s purported analyst erred in finding gasoline,” Hurst wrote. The investigators discovered that Richardson had little or no money and that he and Cacy had a long and healthy relationship. In a will scrawled out on a piece of paper shortly before his death, Richardson wrote: “I love my Sonia she has helped me out for many years.” Richardson, in his late 70s when he died, had heart problems, suffered from dementia and had repeatedly been careless with fire and with the cigarettes he smoked at a rate of two to three packs per day. And Hurst concluded in his report that Cacy was not running around in a nightie to distract officers. “She put on a red Mexican house dress provided by a neighbor as soon as possible,” he wrote.

When Austin attorney Eric Rabbanian presented Hurst’s report to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the board released Cacy on parole after she had served just six years of a 99-year sentence. Despite the conflicting reports, both Pecos County District Attorney Albert Valadez and the Bexar County medical examiner's office in 1998 stood by the original investigation results, according to the Express-News report on Cacy's release. In addition to Hurst’s investigation, national media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, ABC News and NBC’s Dateline — which hired its own experts — also looked into the case. Again and again, the finding was that the medical examiner’s office got it wrong: There was no gasoline on Richardson’s clothing.

Still, Cacy remains on parole — unable to visit her daughter and grandchildren in Colorado without permission from her parole officer, unable to lead a normal life. She remains a convicted murderer, charged with killing an uncle who she says was like a father to her. “We were like soul mates,” Cacy says. “If I needed anybody to go talk to, it was going to be Uncle Bill.”

A purpose in life

The Innocence Project will request today that the Forensic Science Commission review the scientific testimony that was used to convict Cacy and decide whether the medical examiner committed professional negligence or misconduct. It’s the same question that the commission seeks to answer about investigators in the Willingham case, and it’s a question that Blackburn says needs to be answered in others cases in which Texans are serving time for arson. The group also plans to file complaints with the commission that challenge cases in which investigators used blood-spatter evidence. And, Blackburn says, the group will seek court intervention in cases in which prosecutors used dogs to sniff out evidence. It plans to use those cases during the 2011 legislative session to promote new laws that would prevent the use of questionable forensic science in the courtroom.

The Innocence Project will also offer its services to government law enforcement agencies, Blackburn says, hoping to help entities ranging from the governor’s office to local district attorneys' offices investigate cases they identify as potential innocence claims. “We’re a bunch of volunteer students working in a crummy office in Lubbock,” he says. “They know where these cases are … and it’s their responsibility to identify these cases and investigate them, and we’re willing help.”

Cacy, who is disabled from a stroke, says she knows she likely faces many more years of parole ahead as she waits for the criminal justice system to review her case — and that it may not conclude while she’s alive. There's no guarantee that the commission will take action, and even if it does, it doesn't decide guilt or innocence. If the commission concluded the science used to convict Cacy was faulty, she would still have to seek exoneration from the governor or go back to the courts.

“There’s lots of people that need this,” she says, “and if what we’re doing helps someone else, it gives my life purpose.”

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