- 99 Years
On November 10, 1991, a fire broke out at the home of Bill Richardson in Fort Stockton. His step daughter, Sonia Cacy, who lived with Richardson at the time, escaped through her bedroom window and ran to seek help from neighbors. Richardson perished in the fire.
Arson investigators claimed there was evidence of an accelerant at the scene. Prior unexplained fires at the house were considered a pattern of behavior. The fact that Sonia was the beneficiary of Richardson’s estate, which included a small amount of money and a now burned home, was presented as motive.
Arrest & Trial
On April 28, 1992, Sonia Cacy, was arrested and charged with murder. In February 1993, Sonia went to trial in Pecos County Criminal District Court. The prosecution contended that Sonia 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.
Police and fire personnel testified at trial that Sonia was combative and attempted to get back into the house, but was restrained. 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.
The defense presented evidence that Richardson had a habit of setting fires. About a week before the fatal fire, Sonia 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. On February 26, 1993, the jury convicted Sonia of murder. Following a penalty hearing, the jury sentenced Cacy to 55 years in prison.
In 1995, an appeals court upheld Sonia’s murder conviction, but vacated her prison sentence and ordered a new punishment hearing. The court ruled that the prosecution had improperly commented on Sonia’s decision not to testify at her trial.
Prior to the new punishment hearing, two arson experts weighed in on the evidence used to convict Sonia. They asserted that the lab analyst who said he found gasoline in Richardson’s clothing, had misread the lab results. They testified at the new sentencing hearing that what the lab analyst 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.
Another fire investigator testified for the defense stating that his examination indicated that Richardson had inadvertently started the fire in the kitchen, leaving a cigarette burning on the edge of a table near his cot and the cigarette ignited the sheets on the cot. He 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. The defense also presented evidence that Richardson was in poor health at the time of the fire.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Sonia 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 and that scientific advances in arson investigation showed there was no proof the fire was deliberately set.
On November 23, 1998, Sonia was released on parole. In 2010, Cacy’s legal team filed a complaint with the Texas Forensic Science Commission requesting that the commission investigate Sonia’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, IPTX filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Sonia’s behalf. By then, IPTX 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.
The petition included new evidence that the original lab analyst 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 he 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 the lab analyst. 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.
An evidentiary hearing on the petition was held in the summer of 2014. In June 2016, the judge issued a scathing decision that recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals grant the writ and vacate Sonia’s conviction.
On November 2, 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and vacated Sonia’s conviction on the basis of actual innocence. On Jan. 4, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charge, nearly 20 years after Sonia was released from prison.
Systemic Failures Have Wrongly
Imprisoned Thousands of
The Generosity of Their Fellow Citizens Can Provide Them
The Freedom They Deserve.