As he began his opening statement yesterday in Tonya Lucas' arson and murder trial, prosecutor Jack I. Lesser unveiled a grim visual aid: a handwritten chart listing the names and ages of six dead children.
"This defendant brought six children into this world and the defendant sent six children out of this world," Mr. Lesser told the Baltimore Circuit Court jury that will weigh the case against the East Baltimore woman. "It does not matter that this defendant did not intend to kill her children, because the evidence will show she did intend to set that fire and did in fact set that fire on July 7, 1992."
"That fire," at Ms. Lucas' East Eager Street rowhouse, killed six of her seven children. An almost unimaginably tragic event, said defense attorney Mark A. Van Bavel. He then proclaimed Ms. Lucas' innocence and told the jury that two men -- including the state's star witness -- drunkenly carried out a plan to set the house ablaze.
Although he could point to no motive other than resentment one of the men may have harbored against the Lucas family, Mr. Van Bavel assured the jurors, "This isn't some television lawyer telling you some far-fetched scheme."
Before both attorneys addressed the jury to kick off a trial that is expected to last at least two weeks, Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman told the panel that its most difficult task would be weighing the credibility of the witnesses. And no one is likely to come under more scrutiny on the stand than Eugene R. Weddington Jr., a 33-year-old ex-convict who may make or break the prosecution case.
Mr. Van Bavel started his assault on Mr. Weddington's veracity during his opening statement, calling him an "admitted perjurer" who told a grand jury one story in July and told police a different one in December. "Now it's March. Which story are we to believe? Or is another story yet to come out?" the lawyer said.
Before the jury was called into the courtroom yesterday, Mr. Van Bavel sought to have Mr. Weddington barred from testifying, saying that his previous contradictions make anything he says unworthy of belief. Judge Hammerman rejected that request. The judge also has ruled that the jury cannot be told that Mr. Weddington was jailed for contempt of court and that he said he was under the influence of heroin while testifying last month in a pretrial motions hearing.
According to grand jury transcripts and the prosecutor's opening remarks, Mr. Weddington approached police two days after the fire and then told a grand jury he had been on his way to work after a night of drinking and using drugs when he was offered money to act as a lookout.
He said then that the man who recruited him may have been Andre Moore, who Mr. Van Bavel described as an alcoholic who sometimes lived with the Lucas family. Mr. Weddington told the grand jury he was reluctant to be a "snitch" -- until he found out several children had died, according to the transcripts.
He told the grand jury that the man who recruited him said Ms. Lucas was going to burn her house down to receive assistance for better housing through a relief agency such as the Red Cross.
In December, Mr. Weddington told police he had lied to the grand jury because he didn't want his girlfriend and father to know that he had agreed to pay Ms. Lucas $10 to perform a sexual act on the morning of the fire. He told police Ms. Lucas smoked crack cocaine bought with the $10 and told him of the scheme to better her housing. He said he saw her start the fire in her living room.
Mr. Lesser said Mr. Weddington was granted immunity from charges for perjury, solicitation of prostitution and drug use in exchange for his testimony and on the condition he had nothing to do with setting the fire.
Mr. Van Bavel said Mr. Moore and Mr. Weddington -- who according to court records was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1975 for armed robbery and was released in March 1991 after serving a 10-year sentence, also for armed robbery -- set the house ablaze.
The defense lawyer said tests showed that Mr. Moore had traces of petroleum distillates on his clothes, hands and shoes.
Earlier, he told the judge that Mr. Moore, an original suspect in the case who has not been charged, failed a polygraph test on his involvement in the fire.