Mistrial declared in retrial of woman accused in killing of 6 children in 1992 fire

A judge declared a mistrial Tuesday in the case of a Baltimore woman accused of killing her six children in a house fire in 1992.

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 on Tuesday, nine jurors voted to acquit Lucas, said her attorney, Michele Nethercott.

“The result could have obviously been far worse. The majority of the jurors understand the weakness of the state’s evidence,” she said. Nethercott said her client is relieved.

“She was prepared for the worst,” Nethercott said.

A spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office would not say Tuesday whether the state plans to retry the case.

During closing arguments last week, prosecutors sought to show jurors that Lucas intentionally set fire to her home in the 2400 block of E. Eager St. to receive 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.

But Nethercott said Tuesday that the state’s case was weak. She said in closing arguments that Lucas was receiving other government assistance to support her family, and did not need help from the Red Cross. She also reminded jurors that Lucas was not on trial for child abuse, even though prosecutors showed graphic pictures of Gregory’s body several times.

Deliberations stretched on for more than a week, during which jurors occasionally asked questions of the court and wanted to see the transcripts of testimony from the state’s key witness, Eugene Weddington, who said he saw Lucas start the blaze.

Nethercott said Weddington initially lied about how he got into Lucas’ house. Weddington testified that his explanation for being inside the house changed because he did not want his fiancee to know that he had been in the house seeking sex. He said Lucas had offered him oral sex for $10 worth of cocaine before she started the fire.

But Weddington was adamant about his recollection of the events.

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

The University of Baltimore's Innocence Project took up the case in 2015, questioning the credibility of the fire investigation, and Lucas’ conviction was overturned in December 2015. Since the first trial, questions about fire science have raised doubt in numerous cases and led to dozens of arson exonerations across the country.

“The state’s own arson expert concluded that the cause of this fire should have been declared undetermined,” Nethercott said Tuesday.

Lucas has been 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.

“There’s a lot of problems with the arson case,” Nethercott said. Given her client’s diagnosis, she said, “I would hope we could end this.”

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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