A re-trial began Monday for a Baltimore woman found guilty 24 years ago of intentionally setting a blaze that killed her six children, a conviction overturned due to discredited arson investigation methods.
Tonya Lucas, now 54, has been free since March 2016 as she undergoes treatment for stage-four breast cancer. She sobbed Monday as prosecutors told the jury that the lives of her children were "snuffed out by the actions of their mother."
Lucas was given six consecutive life terms after being convicted by a jury of felony murder and arson for the July 1992 fire. She maintains she did not commit the crime.
Advances in fire science have discredited assumptions that for decades governed fire investigations here and across the country and have led to dozens of exonerations. In Lucas' case, court records show the defense will argue that Baltimore investigators had no scientific basis to conclude that the fire was set and that it began in a first-floor living room.
The Baltimore Innocence Project took up Lucas' case and, over prosecutors' objections, a Baltimore judge overturned her conviction in December 2015.
Michele Nethercott, Lucas' attorney from the University of Baltimore law clinic, told jurors that to convict Lucas they must first determine the fire was intentionally set. She said mistakes made by fire investigators would complicate that process.
The trial thrusts back into a downtown courtroom a horrifying fire that at the time was called one of the worst crimes in Baltimore's history. The trial is expected to last six weeks, with a jury and six alternates selected last week.
A gag order prevents both sides from commenting outside of court.
Assistant State's Attorney Rita Wisthoff-Ito did not refer in her opening arguments to the discredited fire science, but in court records prosecutors said they plan to call investigators who will stand by the findings.
Instead, she focused jurors on witness accounts that she said show Lucas set the fire on purpose.
Wisthoff-Ito said Lucas had been fighting an eviction at her home in the 2400 block of E. Eager St. and was set to be kicked out at 9 a.m. the morning of the fire. About 8:15 a.m., the blaze broke out.
Prosecutors say Lucas was hoping to receive Red Cross assistance by setting a fire. They also say Lucas was hoping to cover up abuse of her 2-year-old son Gregory Cook, who weighed just 10 pounds.
Lucas figured "it'll get me a new place to live and Greg will be destroyed in the fire. I'm sure in her mind, she thought she'd get the other children out of the fire," Wisthoff-Ito said, noting that the felony murder charge does not require jurors to find that Lucas intended to kill the children.
Lucas allegedly visited a family staying in her basement the night before, telling them what to do in the event of a fire, Wisthoff-Ito said.
The state's key witness is a man named Eugene Weddington, who came forward to police two days after the fire and said he stood as lookout for an unknown man who set it. Weddington later admitted he had lied to police and in front of a grand jury, and said he watched Lucas pour lighter fluid and set the fire.
He said she offered him oral sex for a $10 "blast" of crack cocaine so she could work up the courage to set the fire. Weddington, who now lives in North Carolina, is expected to testify.
Nethercott said Lucas "may not have been a fit mother, but she did not set fire to her house."
Lucas jumped out of a second floor window, bypassing her sleeping children as she ran from the rear. Nethercott said it wouldn't make sense for Lucas to set the first-floor fire, run upstairs, and then jump onto the concrete below.
She also told jurors that if Lucas were trying to cover up neglect of 2-year-old Gregory, she would not set a fire that was certain to attract the attention of a wide array of authorities.
"Tonya Lucas is a human being, and not the monster the state is making her out to be," Nethercott said.
She called Weddington a liar, and in court filings prior to trial, defense attorneys said they plan to call an expert who will say Weddington was "seriously impaired" and "generated numerous and varied descriptions of the events that he did not actually observe."
The defense also plans to call fire experts who will testify that the original investigators "did not appropriately consider, much less rule out, all possible accidental causes of this fire," according to pre-trial filings.
Recent testing of evidence from the home showed no traces of accelerants. The state counters that it is "no real surprise 24 years later the evidence of ignitable liquids would have long ago dissipated."
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Among the defense experts is a leading fire scientist named Craig Beyler, who issued a scathing report for a Texas commission pointing out flaws in a case that had led to a man's execution. Defense filings in Lucas' case say Beyler will testify that there is "no scientific basis upon which to conclude that the fire originated in the front area of the living room," an opinion they say is shared by a federal expert being called by the prosecution.
A fire captain from the original investigation is expected to acknowledge that while fire investigation techniques have changed, he worked to rule out accidental causes.
Lucas has left the courtroom with her family each day of the proceedings. She has been undergoing treatment for cancer, and in March 2016 Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill ordered that she could be released on home detention and GPS monitoring.
The first state witness called Monday was retired firefighter William E. Martin, who described in vivid detail arriving on the scene and working to beat back the flames. He recalled a firefighter leaping from a ladder due to high temperatures, and Lucas kneeling behind the home and saying, "My children, my children."
Martin said the fire would be extinguished and reignite, or "flash over." He said in his experience, that occurs when vapors from the presence of flammable liquids are reignited.