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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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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.