Mother goes on trial today in deaths of 6 kids


When Tonya Lucas goes on trial today charged in the deaths of six of her children, Eugene Weddington will be waiting to take the stand as a key prosecution witness.

Mr. Weddington is the unidentified witness who authorities have claimed will say that Ms. Lucas, a welfare recipient who was facing eviction, set her East Eager Street rowhouse on fire July 7 so the Red Cross would provide her family with clothing, furniture and new housing, individuals familiar with the case said.

The Northeast Baltimore man's testimony is considered damning enough that prosecutors have hidden him away for the past month in the wake of alleged threats from Ms. Lucas' family. But what will the jury make of Eugene Weddington, witness, who said he was under the influence of heroin while testifying last month during a pre-trial motions hearing in the case? He spent a night in jail for contempt of court after sassing a judge and refusing to answer questions at that hearing.

Ms. Lucas is charged with arson and six counts of murder in the deaths of her children, ranging in age from 6 weeks to 12 years; and six counts of attempted murder in connection with the residents who managed to escape the fire. The trial, before Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman, is expected to last at least two weeks.

Ms. Lucas will receive a separate trial on a charge of child abuse; one of her dead sons, 2-year-old Gregory Rodney Cooke, weighed only 10 pounds and showed signs of broken bones.

Prosecutors asked for -- and received -- a gag order preventing the lawyers from discussing the case with the press. But a Feb. 11 letter from prosecutor Jack I. Lesser to defense lawyer Mark A. Van Bavel found its way into the court file. The letter and other court documents, along with Mr. Weddington's testimony during the pre-trial hearings, provide hints at possible prosecution and defense strategies.

During the pre-trial hearing, Mr. Weddington was frequently sarcastic, at one point answering a question about whether he was in Ms. Lucas' house the morning of the fire by saying, "We was on the same spaceship."

Mr. Weddington said he saw Ms. Lucas smoke crack cocaine the morning of the fire. After Mr. Weddington refused to say whether he had had sex with Ms. Lucas that morning -- and after he dared Judge Clifton J. Gordy to find him in contempt of court, saying, "You think you scare me, man?" -- he was ordered locked up. The next day he regained his freedom after saying he had not had sex with Ms. Lucas.

Mr. Van Bavel is expected to make the jury aware of the fact that a witness claimed that the fire was set by a former boarder at the house who had been at odds with Ms. Lucas. The defense lawyer will also likely present test results showing that the boarder, who has not been charged, had petroleum distillates on his clothes, hands and feet.

Then again, Ms. Lucas also has been tied to the setting of the fire by petroleum deposits on clothing, court records show. The court documents also show prosecutors intend to call as witnesses George Dangerfield, the landlord who had obtained a court order allowing him to evict Ms. Lucas on the day of the fire, and Bernadine Simmons, a city eviction-prevention official.

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