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I grew up with him from a baby, and I adored him. He was kind of eccentric. He had his flaws. But, oh my God, he was a good man.
Sonia Cacy is describing her uncle, Bill Richardson. In the early 1990s, Cacy lived in Fort Stockton, Texas with her uncle, who was in his seventies and suffering from a form of dementia. On the morning of November 10th, 1991, everything changed.
The night before we watched a movie together. Burt Lancaster was in it and that was my favorite. And then when that was over – it was a late movie – I went to bed, and we were both alive.
Around dawn, a fire broke out in their home. The then 44-year-old Cacy escaped through a window and ran to a neighbor, who called 911. When emergency responders found Richardson, the 76-year-old man was dead. Authorities said the fire was suspicious.
When did you sense, Sonia, that the authorities suspected you of setting the fire?
Well, they took me to the hospital. I was there eight days for smoke inhalation. Scraped all my fingernails. I said, "What's the matter? What are you looking for?" And I was still crying over Uncle Bill. And he said, "Blood or whatever's on you."
Five months later, Cacy was arrested and charged with murder by arson.
Did you have anything to do with the fire that occurred on November 10, 1991?
No. I did not. I did not ever, anything. No.
Gary Udashen is Cacy's attorney.
They claimed that she had doused her uncle Bill in gasoline and set him on fire, which killed him and then burned the house down.
At the trial, the most critical piece of information came from a report by a toxicologist, someone trained to check for drugs and chemicals in the body. He testified that accelerant was found on Richardson's clothing. The prosecution's fire investigator also testified that burn patterns in the house were indicative of an accelerant.
Sonia is a real, live example of somebody whose life was really destroyed based upon bad scientific testimony in court.
In 1993, Cacy – a wife and mother of three grown children – was convicted in a jury trial and later sentenced to 99 years in prison.
But a relatively new Texas law could change Cacy's life. It's known as the "junk science law." The law offers a direct path to appeal when there is scientific evidence that was not available at the time of the conviction or there is new evidence that contradicts what was used to convict. Before the law, it was impossible in Texas to appeal a conviction based only on flawed scientific evidence.
When the Innocence Project of Texas took Cacy's appeal, attorneys immediately questioned the toxicologist's results, specifically a chromatography test, which separates mixtures found at crime scenes to detect molecules like those from gasoline.
We actually had the Texas State Fire Marshal, who's a state of Texas official, issue his report where he said, "The cause of the fire should be listed as undetermined." And what he meant by that, that there was no gasoline on the clothing. So you couldn't say that it was arson. Dr. Buc is the expert that the district attorney hired.
Which backfired, because Dr. Buc said that the chromatograms are "negative for gasoline," which is exactly what all of our other experts said.
Seven other arson experts brought in by the defense agreed, and two defense pathologists who reviewed Richardson's autopsy found he died of a heart attack – not burns.
What everybody thinks most likely happened is that Uncle Bill was a very careless smoker. He accidently set the house of hire and he actually died of a heart attack.
This new interpretation of the evidence convinced the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to grant Cacy parole, after she had spent five years in prison. But without her conviction overturned, at 68, Cacy has been required to report to a parole officer once a month for the past 17 years.
What kind of burden has it been to be considered in the eyes of the law a convicted murderer? What has the burden of that been?
It's a big burden because you can't even get a place to live. Everybody does your background. Where you're living, where you're gonna work. I've never been able to get a place to live. You know, a regular place.
Today, Cacy lives in southeast Texas and spends time with her family and friends. But her standing murder conviction makes it difficult to find a job because of background checks. She's gotten by working for friends and pet sitting. Cacy hopes the junk science law will bring her a step closer to real freedom.
It's definitely a law-and-order state, but we've gotten smart.
Democratic state Senator John Whitmire – who chairs the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee – sponsored the junk science bill. He says his state's reckoning with DNA testing paved the way for the law. Since 1993, Texas has exonerated 57 people – mostly convicted of murder and sexual assault – who appealed with DNA evidence. The highest number of any state. Whitmire says that was a moral wake up call.
I hope it keeps everybody up at night if they think one person is wrongfully convicted. Junk science has proven we have numerous people, maybe large numbers nationwide, wrongfully convicted.
When Texas adopted its junk science law in 2013, it was the first in the nation. Last year, California, became the second. Junk science appeals are finally making it onto court calendars in Texas, but there is no deadline for decisions. So far, only one case has resulted in a new trial. A handful of other cases – including Sonia Cacy's – are waiting to be heard.
But the number is expected to increase, because of the work of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a group of seven scientists and two attorneys appointed by the governor. They investigate the integrity of forensic analysis at crime labs and set guidelines about what is solid forensic science for judges, who ultimately decide what evidence a jury sees.
In February, the commission recommended that bite mark evidence should stay out of courtrooms because there is not enough scientific research to prove its validity when identifying a perpetrator. The commission is also reviewing other types of evidence like microscopic hair analysis that involves comparing under a microscope a loose hair from a crime scene to hair from a suspect.
Cases that use the junk science law hope to end up here at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. It is the body that can overturn a conviction. But an overturned conviction is not an exoneration. And that's an important distinction, and it's where some say this law falls short.
Criminal defense attorney Jeff Blackburn pushed for the law. He previously worked for the Innocence Project of Texas and today has his own practice.
Are you gonna get exonerated? Probably not. That means you're not gonna be compensated. That means you're never gonna really have your name cleared. You're never really gonna get the moral or practical satisfaction of saying, "I didn't do it, and the courts have exonerated me." And that's an awful big deal.
For instance, in that first case where the conviction was overturned due to doubts raised about junk science, the defendant was not exonerated or declared actually innocent, which requires a higher standard of evidence. Blackburn says one of the law's shortcomings is there is no accountability for mistakes.
The worst thing under this law is that now prosecutors get off easy. They have an excuse and they can say, "Well, I guess it was just those creeps in the lab coats that did it to us this time. Sorry." That prevents us from ever understanding what really goes on in these cases.
Senator Whitmire points out that it took the state legislature three sessions to pass the bill.
We talked to a couple of attorneys who felt that the law didn't go far enough because there wasn't an exoneration clause in that.
You probably couldn't pass that. In my work, in criminal justice in Texas, I take three steps forward, and they pull me back two. So at the end of the day or end of session, I've taken a step.
The current district attorney of the county where Cacy was tried stands by her conviction, rejects her arguments about the scientific evidence, and says there is considerable circumstantial evidence that still points to her guilt.
What are you gonna do if Sonia prevails under the junk science avenue, but is not exonerated?
I just don't see that happening.
Are you sure you're giving her false hope?
You feel that confident?
I feel that confident that she's gonna be exonerated.
Cacy thinks often of her uncle Bill while waiting for her new day in court.
My hopes for the future are to get everything like this over with and to be exonerated before I die, and it would be really nice for my children.
Watch the Full Episode
Hannah Yi is a Producer with PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her responsibilities include producing, shooting and editing for the show. Previously she was a Producer for the national PBS news magazine show Need to Know. She also worked for the ABC News Longform Documentary Unit and on the CNN show Anderson Cooper 360°. Hannah earned her M.S. degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her B.A. degree in Communications and English from the University of Pennsylvania.
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