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Witness recounts fire that killed 6 children in retrial of 1992 case

Neighbors watch as firefighters work a one-alarm fire at 2424 Eager Street on July 7, 1992. Six of Tonya Lucas' seven children died and she was charged with setting the fire. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)
Neighbors watch as firefighters work a one-alarm fire at 2424 Eager Street on July 7, 1992. Six of Tonya Lucas' seven children died and she was charged with setting the fire. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun) (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Mary Harris sat on the witness stand, her eyes closed, recalling the events of a fire 25 years ago that nearly took her life.

Harris long ago thought the incident, which killed six children in East Baltimore in July 1992, was behind her. But the retrial of Tonya Lucas, whose conviction and six life sentences were overturned two years ago after arson investigation methods used in the case were discredited, landed her back in a courtroom Thursday morning to recount the experience.

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"I heard Tonya upstairs hollering that the house is on fire," she recalled on the stand. "I climbed up the steps and said, 'Oh God, the house is on fire.'"

Harris testified that the night before the blaze, she was playing cards and using drugs with Lucas when Lucas raised the possibility of a fire. A man who was staying on the couch, Andre Moore, often lit paper on fire using the stove.

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"One of these days, Andre is gonna make a mistake and not put it out and start a fire," Harris recalled Lucas saying. Lucas then told Harris and her husband the best way to escape from the basement in the event of a fire.

When the fire broke out, Harris said, she put her two children out of the home first. Outside, she saw Lucas sitting on steps, saying over and over: "My kids are in the house."

"Why didn't you grab one of your children?" Harris recalled asking Lucas.

She said she also asked Lucas how the fire started, and she replied that Moore threw a Molotov cocktail through the window.

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Harris said Lucas had told her not to let Moore into the home that night, and he had come by the morning of the fire tapping on the window to be let in.

Outside the courthouse, Harris said testifying was "not pleasant at all. It brings back too many memories."

Asked if she believes Lucas was responsible for the fire, Harris said, "I'm not sure."

"It's very ironic how it happened, after someone told you there was going to be a fire," she said. "Why would you not save your children?"

Prosecutors contend that Lucas intentionally set the fire because she was about to be evicted and wanted to receive aid from the Red Cross, and also wanted to cover up neglect of a 2-year-old son who weighed just 10 pounds.

Retired homicide detective Bertina Silver testified Thursday morning that the boy "was so small, he looked like a child from Somalia."

The defense says the flaws of the arson investigation raise questions about whether the fire was set in the first place. They also say a man who says he witnessed Lucas set the fire told a different story to the grand jury and is not reliable.

Lucas spent 24 years in prison but has been free on home monitoring since March 2016, a few months after her conviction was overturned, so she can pursue treatment for breast cancer.

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

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