Killing of 6 children — 'one of worst crimes in Baltimore history' — being re-tried 25 years later

Baltimore prosecutors are re-trying a woman for the 1992 killings of her six children in a fire, a case described at the time as one of the worst crimes in Baltimore's history and that was overturned in 2015 due to faulty techniques used by fire investigators at the time.

Tonya Lucas, who is now 53, was convicted of six counts of first-degree felony murder 24 years ago, with a jury finding that she intentionally torched her East Baltimore home in hopes of receiving assistance. She was sentenced to six consecutive life terms.

Lucas maintained she was innocent and said she was framed. The University of Baltimore's Innocence Project took up the case, and her convictions were overturned in December 2015. Opening arguments are scheduled for Monday afternoon, with the trial expected to last six weeks.

In recent decades, discredited arson science has thrown into question scores of cases and led to dozens of arson exonerations across the country.

"The science of fire investigation has changed dramatically, so the fire investigative techniques used in the first case were deemed unreliable," said Lucas' original attorney, Mark Van Bavel, who is not involved in the re-trial.

City prosecutors admitted in February 2015 that the science used to determine the fire was intentionally set has been discredited, but they urged the court to sustain the convictions, court records show.

In recent court filings, prosecutors say they intend to call a retired fire captain who was involved in the case, who will "acknowledge that the 1992 understanding of how fire burns has since been demonstrated to be incorrect, and to explain the efforts that he made during the course of the investigation of the crime scene to eliminate any possible accidental causes of the fire."

The defense contends that the original investigators "did not even appropriately consider, much less rule out, all possible accidental causes."

Among their expert witnesses is renowned fire scientist Craig Beyler, who prepared a blistering report in 2009 for Texas authorities that found severe mistakes in a case that led to a man's execution.

However, the state's evidence goes beyond the disputed work of arson investigators. At Lucas' original trial, prosecutors argued that she set the family's rowhouse, in the 2400 block of E. Eager St., on fire to get help from the Red Cross because she faced eviction.

Prosecution filings allege that Lucas smoked crack with her downstairs neighbors the day before the fire and told them which way they should go out in the event of a fire. She also told a man who sometimes stayed at the house that he was creating a fire hazard, prosecutors said in court records.

There is only one eyewitness, however: Eugene Weddington, who said Lucas offered him oral sex for a "$10 blast" of cocaine to help her work up the courage to set the fire. His testimony was attacked at the original trial because he told a grand jury that the fire had been set by a drifter and sometimes boarder at Lucas' house who was angry at Lucas for kicking him out the night before.

Weddington now lives in North Carolina, and is being brought up for the trial, records show.

The defense plans to call an expert who will testify that Weddington was "seriously impaired" and "generated numerous and varied descriptions of the events that he did not actually observe."

Lucas also is accused of setting the fire to cover up evidence of child abuse of her 2-year-old son, Gregory Cook, who weighed 10 pounds and was "literally skin and bones," prosecutors wrote in a recent court filing.

Also killed were Damien Cook, two months; Takie Cook, 2; Deon Cook, 3; Russell Williams Jr., 5; and Antoine Lucas, 12.

William Lucas, 8, survived the fire after being saved by Lucas' then-boyfriend. Tonya Lucas jumped to safety from a second-floor window.

"It is despicable, and I think it is unspeakable as well. Nobody can accurately describe the full import of this crime," Baltimore Circuit Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman said at her sentencing.

"It's not over yet," Lucas said while being led from the courtroom in 1993. "Judge Hammerman might play God, but he is not God."

Lucas walked out of the courthouse Thursday evening after a jury was selected. She has been free since March 2016 and on home detention, allowing her to pursue treatment for stage four breast cancer. She and her attorneys, as well as prosecutors, are unable to comment on the case due to a gag order.

Two years ago, Lucas' family started a petition asking Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to free Lucas, and set up a web page about the case.

"In a court proceeding in February 2015, the State admitted that the fire evidence was no longer valid, yet the State's Attorney refuses to take action and set Tonya free," the now-defunct site said, according to an archived version.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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