Jurors in the double-murder trial of Rene Elizabeth Aulton yesterday heard the 27-year-old woman alternately portrayed as the coldblooded killer of her daughters and as the victim of police intimidation and tunnel vision.
How prosecutors intend to cast Ms. Aulton's motive for setting the fire that killed her two children remained unclear as attorneys gave their opening statements.
Ms. Aulton is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson in the Nov. 15, 1994, deaths of her daughters, Christina Lambert, 4, and Natalie Aulton, 2, in their rowhouse at 2309 Fleet St.
Prosecutor Gary Honick began to tell jurors about two men involved in the case: Joseph Lambert, Christina's father, and another, unknown man, who was Natalie's father.
In taped statements to police -- which the jury is to hear -- Ms. Aulton has said that she set the fire because she was depressed that Lambert would be paroled from prison and might attempt to hurt her. She said she wanted to kill herself and the children.
But police sources have said Ms. Aulton may have wanted to be rid of the girls to please her boyfriend, Frank Wooters, because Natalie was of mixed race. Mr. Wooters has denied that he had any problem with Natalie's race.
Mr. Honick appeared ready to explore that avenue when he told jurors that Natalie's father "was an African-American."
The prosecutor was kept from going further by an objection from Assistant Public Defender Mary Jo Livingston. The lawyers then spent several minutes in a conference with Judge John C. Themelis. When Mr. Honick resumed his statement, he made no more mention of Natalie's father.
But he alluded to the fact that there were "obstacles" in the relationship between Ms. Aulton and Mr. Wooters that had prevented the couple from getting married, and he told jurors that they would hear testimony on the subject.
Ms. Livingston told jurors that they would have to decide "whether Ms. Aulton was a villain or a victim in this case."
She said that investigators looking into the fire learned that Ms. Aulton was "slow-witted," with an IQ just above mild mental retardation. Yet they ignored admonitions from Ms. Aulton's lawyer not to talk to her client without the lawyer present, Ms. Livingston said.
She also said jurors should question Fire Capt. Stephan G. Fugate's conclusion that the fire was set in an upstairs closet.
"Did she start that fire? Or did Captain Fugate make a mistake, and it was never corrected?" Ms. Livingston asked. "Did they decide what the outcome of the case was going to be before their investigation started?"
Fire Capt. John Baker testified yesterday that he found both children face-up on their beds in a "spread-eagle" position, which he said was unusual for fire victims. Captain Baker said that as he tried to make his way through the thick smoke into the girls' bedroom, he fell into another bed that appeared to have been placed against the outside of their door.