Jury deliberating in retrial of mother accused of killing 6 children in fire in 1992

Jurors began deliberations Monday in the retrial of a Baltimore woman accused of intentionally setting her home on fire, killing her six children, 25 years ago.

Tonya Lucas, 54, was convicted by a jury in 1993 of six counts of first-degree felony murder and was serving six consecutive life terms. But that conviction was overturned in December 2015 due to discredited arson investigation methods.

During a four-week retrial, prosecutors again sought to show jurors that Lucas intentionally set fire to her East Baltimore home, in the 2400 block of E. Eager St., in hopes of receiving rental assistance from the Red Cross. They also allege she set the fire to cover up her abuse of her 2-year-old son, Gregory Cook, who weighed just 10 pounds.

“The defendant was about to be evicted. How was she going to cover up Gregory?” Assistant State's Attorney Rita Wisthoff-Ito said in closing arguments Monday afternoon.

The state’s key witness was Eugene Weddington, who testified he saw Lucas start the blaze.

Lucas’ attorneys argued the state’s case was weak because prosecutors did not back up the alleged motive that she burned the house to receive assistance. They said their client was receiving other government assistance to support her family, and did not need help from the Red Cross.

The defense also attacked the testimony of Weddington, who said Lucas had offered him oral sex for $10 of cocaine before she started the fire. The defense said he was not credible because he initially lied about how he got into the house. Weddington testified that his explanation for being inside the house changed because he did not want his fiance to know that he had been in the house seeking oral sex.

Weddington was adamant about his recollection of the events.

“I know who I was with, I know what I seen,” he testified.

Lucas' attorney, Michele Nethercott, also attacked prosecutors for attempting to play to the sympathy of jurors. Several times during closing arguments, the jury was shown photos of Gregory’s body. Some flinched, while others looked away until the picture was removed from a stand in front of the jury box.

“It’s not about whether she was a good mother,” Nethercott said.

Lucas has maintained her innocence, saying she was framed.

The University of Baltimore's Innocence Project took up the case in 2015, questioning the credibility of the fire investigation. Since Lucas’ original case, questions in fire science have raised doubt in numerous cases and led to dozens of arson exonerations across the country. The defense has argued that the original investigators did not consider all possible accidental causes.

Lucas appeared in court on Monday in a black suit with her ankle monitor visible. She has been free on home detention and GPS monitoring since March 2016 after she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. She missed part of the trial proceedings to undergo chemotherapy treatment.

Several family members and supporters who watched the proceedings wore pink breast cancer ribbons.

Jurors were dismissed for the day around 5 p.m. Monday, and are to resume deliberations Tuesday morning.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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