Summary Courtesy of The National Registry of Exonerations
by Maurice Possley
In the early morning of November 10, 1991, a fire erupted in a home in Fort Stockton, Texas. When it was extinguished, the owner, 76-year-old Bill Richardson, was found dead near a cot where he slept.
Five months later, on April 28, 1992, Richardson’s stepdaughter, 44-year-old Sonia Cacy, was charged with murder.
In February 1993, Cacy went to trial in Pecos County Criminal District Court. The prosecution contended that Cacy dumped gasoline on Richardson as he slept and set it ablaze because she was the sole heir in Richardson’s will and wanted to collect the inheritance.
A neighbor testified that Cacy told her that Richardson woke her and told her to get out of the house because there was a fire. Cacy escaped, but Richardson did not. Police and fire personnel said that Cacy was combative and attempted to get back into the house, but was restrained.
Joe Castorena, a toxicologist in the Bexar County Forensic Lab where the fire debris and Richardson’s clothing were sent for analysis, testified that remnants of Richardson’s clothing tested positive for the presence of gasoline.
Fire investigators said the evidence showed the fire had been deliberately set. Some witnesses, including police called to the scene, said that Cacy had alcohol on her breath and refused to cooperate in the investigation. A medical examiner testified that Richardson died of burns.
A witness said that about 10 days before Richardson died, he mentioned that he did not have a will. However, a will was found—with Cacy’s palm print on the back—in a drawer of a bureau in Cacy’s room, although there was no evidence that Cacy had any role in its creation.
The defense presented evidence that Cacy was Richardson’s niece as well as his stepdaughter—his brother was Cacy’s father, and Richardson married Cacy’s mother after his brother died.
The defense also presented evidence that Richardson had a habit of setting fires. About a week before the fatal fire, Cacy and Richardson had reported two other fires on the property—one in Richardson’s office and one in a shed behind the house. Both fires were extinguished without serious damage.
Witnesses testified that Richardson had virtually no real assets of any value—what he did own was badly run down and poorly maintained. William Cacy, Sonia’s son, testified that Richardson had shown him a handwritten will in which he left everything he owned to Sonia.
On February 26, 1993, the jury convicted Cacy of murder. Following a penalty hearing, the jury sentenced Cacy to 55 years in prison.
In 1995, a Texas Appeals Court upheld Cacy’s murder conviction, but vacated her prison sentence and ordered a new punishment hearing. The court ruled that the prosecution had improperly commented on Cacy’s decision not to testify at her trial.
By that time, Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who was a pioneer in the field of arson, had examined the evidence in the case and concluded that there was no evidence of arson. Hurst asserted that Castorena, the lab analyst who said he found gasoline in Richardson’s clothing, had misread the lab results. Hurst testified at the new sentencing hearing that what Castorena said was gasoline was in fact the residue of burning plastic, which resembles gasoline and appears when items as foam mattresses and plastic furniture are burned.
Ken Gibson, another fire investigator, testified for the defense. He said that his examination indicated that Richardson had decided to make some toast and smoked a cigarette while he was waiting. Richardson left the cigarette burning in the edge of a table near his cot and the cigarette ignited the sheets on the cot. Gibson reached that conclusion based on evidence that Richardson was a chain smoker, only put his dentures in when he was going eat, and there was bread in the toaster.
Gibson further testified that he believed that Richardson attempted to open a window, but had a heart attack and died before the fire reached curtains around the window. The flaming curtains fell onto Richardson, who had what appeared to be a broken window crank clenched in his hand.
Cacy testified and denied setting the fire. She said that as long as Richardson was around, “I had whatever I needed and so did he. His house was mine, as long as forever. Anything he would have had, he would of given me. He didn’t have anything that I would gain any money, ever. He owed more than his house would have been worth.”
The defense also presented evidence that Richardson was in poor health and had seriously hardened arteries.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison—44 more years than she had originally received.
Two years later, a team of fire and medical experts and attorneys—all working without charge—made an extensive presentation to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The presentation focused on medical evidence that Richardson died of a heart attack—not from burns—and that scientific advances in arson investigation showed there was no proof the fire was deliberately set. In fact, the primary finding of arson stemmed from Castorena’s lab finding of gasoline in Richardson’s clothing, which had been called into question.
On November 23, 1998, Cacy was released from prison on parole. In 2010, Cacy’s legal team filed a complaint with the Texas Forensic Science Commission requesting that the commission—which was established after questions were raised about the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for an arson fire in Corsicana, Texas—investigate Cacy’s case. However, that request was denied after the state attorney general said the commission could only investigate fires that occurred after the commission was established in 2005.
In 2012, lawyers for the Innocence Project of Texas filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Cacy’s behalf. By then, Cacy’s lawyers had the benefit of a report from the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, which had conducted a separate investigation and concluded there was no evidence of arson.
This petition included new evidence that Castorena had admitted that at the time he conducted his tests on Richardson’s clothing, the Bexar County Forensic Lab was contaminated with accelerant residue, although Castorena still insisted that his finding of gasoline was accurate.
In addition, the defense obtained a sworn affidavit from Dr. Larry Ytuarte, a former co-worker of Castorena’s at the lab. Ytuarte, a forensic toxicologist who was later fired after he complained about irregularities at the lab, including the Cacy investigation, testified that another analyst had initially performed testing on Richardson’s clothing and found no accelerant. Ytuarte said that he saw the results of the analysis of Richardson’s clothing sample and that the result was an “unambiguous” finding of “none detected, meaning no accelerant was found in the clothing remnants.” When he compared the printouts of the testing of control sample, which had gasoline, and Richardson’s clothing, he “could see that they did not match.”
Retired visiting Judge Bert Richardson oversaw a two-day evidentiary hearing on the petition in the summer of 2014. In June 2016, Richardson issued a scathing decision that recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Cacy’s conviction be vacated and that she be found factually innocent.
Judge Richardson concluded that Castorena’s analysis was incorrect—the printouts of the analysis of Richardson’s clothing by the gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer in fact showed that “many gasoline hydrocarbon peaks were missing.” This supported the testimony of defense experts that Castorena had testified falsely when he said the testing showed the presence of gasoline.
The judge found that Ytuarte’s affidavit was “credible” and that the defense “claim of false testimony is valid (and) supported by the record.”
The judge also concluded that Cacy’s attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to consult with or present testimony from experts in fire investigation or medicine, which could have shown that the cause of the fire was not arson and that Richardson had died of a heart attack.
The judge concluded, “This is a case of first impression in which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will have the benefit of a state-endorsed agency investigation report which finds that … the fire on November 10, 1991 was not caused by accelerant and that Bill Richardson died of sudden cardiac death…This court finds that the State Fire Marshal’s Office report is credible. This evidence supports a finding of actual innocence.” The judge recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals grant the writ and vacate Cacy’s conviction.
After the decision, the Pecos County District Attorney’s Office passed the case to the Office of State Prosecuting Attorney, which represents prosecutor offices before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
That prosecuting office obtained a 60-day delay to review the evidence and ultimately filed its own recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals that Cacy should be exonerated. “A thorough examination of the new evidence, taking into account findings and credibility determinations supported by the record, when compared with the trial evidence, shows that (Cacy) has unquestionably established her innocence,” the prosecution said.
On November 2, 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and vacated Cacy’s conviction on the basis of actual innocence. On Jan. 4, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charge, nearly 20 years after Cacy was released from prison.