A judge has ruled that Sonia Cacy, a West Texas woman convicted of setting her uncle on fire, is innocent of murder, basing his decision on new analysis of evidence presented at her 1993 trial.
"The cumulation of evidence supports Applicant's claim of actual innocence,” visiting state District Judge Bert Richardson said in his ruling, filed Monday in Pecos County. "This court finds that Applicant makes a compelling case for actual innocence, given the overwhelming evidence."
Richardson, elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2014, is closing out a series of cases he heard as a visiting or substitute judge in Texas. He was also the judge appointed to hear the criminal case against former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an appointment that occurred before he was elected to the criminal appeals bench.
Cacy had served five years of a 99-year murder sentence for the 1991 death of her uncle, Bill Richardson. The two were living in his Fort Stockton home when it caught fire. Prosecutors said Cacy had set her uncle on fire, also burning the home, to get the money he left to her in his will.
But multiple experts — including the State Fire Marshal's office — concluded that Cacy did not set her uncle ablaze. Some suspected that Richardson, a smoker, likely died of a heart attack and that the fire was accidental. Cacy was released on parole after The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles received one of the reports, but her conviction was never lifted. The Pecos County District Attorney and the Bexar County medical examiner's office had stood by the original investigation results.
Judge Richardson’s ruling was largely based on a 2013 state Fire Marshal's Office report that discredited trial testimony that there was an accelerant found at the crime scene.
"The findings of the State Fire Marshal's Office — a state organized and endorsed office — are the strongest evidence that no accelerant was present and that Bill Richardson likely died of a heart attack before being burned," Judge Richardson wrote in a ruling that comes two years after Richardson first heard Cacy's petition for relief in Fort Stockton.
If the high court rules her innocent, Cacy will no longer have to check in monthly — as she has since 1998 — with a probation officer.
Cacy, who is in her 60s and in ill health, would also be eligible for compensation for being wrongfully convicted.
The case automatically heads to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has the final say on whether an individual is innocent or not.
Gary Udashen, Cacy's attorney, praised Judge Richardson’s ruling.
"The most important [finding] is that he found her to be actually innocent," he said.
Richardson will recuse himself from the case when it gets to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Udashen said he is confident the court will rule in his client's favor.
"I feel sure they will because it is so clear," he said.