From Associated Press Stories
A review by the State Fire Marshal’s Office covering old old arson cases that might have relied on bad science has so far discovered several questionable convictions.
But the effort has also drawn criticism from a West Texas prosecutor whose office has had one of its convictions questioned. The prosecutor is now asking the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to stop the reviews.
The Austin American-Statesman reported the review of old arson cases was recommended by a 2011 Texas Forensic Science Commission report that acknowledged faulty fire science played a role in Cameron Todd Willingham’s murder-by-arson conviction in the deaths of his three young daughters in 1991. The Corsicana man was executed in 2004.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy assembled a six-member panel of fire, forensic and legal experts to review old cases – identified by his staff and by the Innocence Project of Texas – that might have relied on bad science.
Connealy said the review team, the Science Advisory Workgroup, examines whether a criminal prosecution could hold up in court using modern fire science forensics.
“We only look at the science of fire investigations. We don’t look at other issues,” including guilt or innocence, Connealy said.
When complete, the panel’s findings are mailed to the prosecutor and, if an appeal is pending, to the proper court.
So far, four reviews have been completed. Three found notable problems with the fire science. One case presented no problems, and a similar finding will be made in a fifth case that will be completed at a December meeting, Connealy said.
One of the cases in which the review panel found problems was with the 1993 murder conviction of Sonia Cacy, who was accused of dousing her uncle, Bill Richardson, with gasoline and setting him on fire in the home they shared in the West Texas town of Fort Stockton.
The review panel found that today’s science doesn’t support a finding of arson. Instead, the cause of the Cacy fire should have been listed as undetermined. The panel also found that the most damning evidence – a forensic test that found gasoline on her uncle’s clothes – was based on misinterpreted results.
Cacy’s lawyers have argued Richardson, a heavy smoker, likely died of a heart attack which smoking in bed.
While other experts in 1998 reached similar conclusions about the arson finding and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles released Cacy from prison after serving less than six years of her 99-year sentence, her murder conviction was unaffected.
Now 66 years old, Cacy said the murder conviction has made it extremely difficult to find a job and an apartment.
Defense lawyers have filed an appeal to overturn the murder conviction.
Rod Ponton, the district attorney of a four-county area that includes Fort Stockton, opposes the appeal, saying he believes Cacy is guilty based on other evidence, which he wouldn’t discuss because it is part of a pending criminal case.
In a letter sent earlier this month to Abbott’s office, Ponton asked the attorney general to determine that the fire marshal has “no authority to make sweeping legal pronouncements on 20-year-old criminal cases.”
Jeff Blackburn, a founder of the Innocence Project of Texas and part of Cacy’s legal team, said the fire marshal’s office is not trying to interfere with the judicial system.