When Tonya Lucas' second arson and murder trial began yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, prosecutor Jack I. Lesser immediately got to the heart of the state's retooled case.
"Two years old and 10 pounds," Mr. Lesser said as he began his opening statement to the jury that will decide the 29-year-old East Baltimore woman's fate. "The defendant's own child was 2 years old and 10 pounds on July the 7th of 1993, when that defendant decided to murder him and burn up his body so the police and other authorities, including the state's attorney's office, would not be able to charge her with abusing her own child."
In Ms. Lucas' first trial, which ended April 1 in mistrial after a jury failed to agree on a verdict, prosecutors did not claim Ms. Lucas intended to kill any of her children. Mr. Lesser said he did not press the issue of whether the child abuse allegations would be admissible then because Judge Clifton J. Gordy, who ruled on the bulk of the pretrial motions, made it clear he would not allow such testimony.
Prosecutors argued then that she was guilty of felony murder -- of inadvertently killing six of her children after setting the family's rowhouse on fire in hopes of gaining assistance from the Red Cross.
But Chief Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman, who has presided over both trials, ruled in May that the alleged child abuse could be presented to establish a motive. Thus, Mr. Lesser told the jury yesterday that 2-year-old Gregory Cook had been starved to the point that he "was, in essence, bones with a little skin."
The prosecutor presented to the jury yesterday twin motives, one involving a plan to cover up alleged child abuse that would have been exposed if she had been evicted as scheduled on the day of the fire and the other involving a scheme to gain Red Cross assistance.
Ms. Lucas' lawyer, Mark A. Van Bavel, told the jury: "The state has no idea of a motive, we submit and will prove, so they have manufactured two motives and will attempt to give you a choice."
Mr. Van Bavel said Gregory had a history of medical problems. He said a hospital doctor's "hasty conclusion" that the child had been abused
set misguided police on a path to try to prove Ms. Lucas set the fire. "We feel this woman is totally, 100 percent not guilty," he said.
Testimony began yesterday with the state's star witness, Eugene Weddington, who had been held by police under a "body attachment" to ensure his appearance in court.
As he did in the first trial, Mr. Weddington, 34, said he ended up in Ms. Lucas' living room after she had promised to perform a sex act in return for $10. He said she asked about Red Cross assistance and then announced an intention to set the house on fire. He said he was stunned to see her splash lighter fluid in her living room and then set the house ablaze.
Under cross-examination by Mr. Van Bavel, Mr. Weddington was again asked why he told a grand jury shortly after the fire that a man offered him money to act as a look-out. As he did in the first trial, Mr. Weddington said he lied to the panel because he didn't want his girlfriend and father to know that he had agreed to pay for a sex act.
Mr. Weddington seemed determined to laugh off many of Mr. Van Bavel's questions as nit-picking. He said he was too stunned by the sight of the woman setting the fire to recall details.