Mistrial declared in woman's arson, murder trial Detective, lawyer clash in hallway

April 02, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

After a hung jury had been declared yesterday in the Tonya Lucas arson and murder trial, Baltimore homicide detective Sgt. Gary Childs and defense attorney Mark A. Van Bavel went face to face in a courthouse hallway to loudly debate the evidence -- including evidence the jury never heard.

For the first time, Sergeant Childs publicly accused the 29-year-old East Baltimore woman of setting her rowhouse on fire to kill her 2-year-old son, who weighed 10 pounds and showed other signs of child abuse.

Mr. Van Bavel dismissed the theory as illogical and said authorities still lack proof that the woman set the July 7, 1992, fire that killed her son and five of his siblings.

During the 2 1/2 -week trial in Baltimore Circuit Court, prosecutors proceeded on a "felony murder" theory: that is, if Ms. Lucas set the fire that killed the children, then she is guilty of murdering them, whether she intended to or not.

In February a judge ruled that Ms. Lucas would receive a separate trial on charges of abusing her son, Gregory Cook, the malnourished boy who also showed signs of broken bones when he died in the fire. Thus, the prosecution was unable to present any testimony on the alleged abuse during the murder trial.

The jury deliberated for 20 hours over five days, sending five notes saying they could not reach a verdict, before Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman declared a mistrial. Several jurors interviewed afterward said the panel had been split 10-2, in favor of conviction, since shortly after it began deliberations last Friday.

The prosecution case during the trial rested heavily on the credibility of Eugene R. Weddington Jr., who testified that Ms. Lucas told him she was facing eviction and was going to burn down her East Eager Street home so she could receive better housing with the help of the Red Cross. He also said he saw the woman set the fire -- but he admitted lying on several details when he testified before a grand jury in July.

"The man is a liar. Can you convict someone on his testimony?" Mr. Van Bavel asked during his closing argument.

Mr. Van Bavel also demanded an explanation for test results showing that Andre Moore, an alcoholic who sometimes lived at the house, had gasoline and heavy petroleum distillates on his hands and clothing. Mr. Moore was not charged.

Prosecutor Jack I. Lesser said that Ms. Lucas lied during the trial and that Mr. Weddington's version of events was supported by testimony that Ms. Lucas had applied for assistance from the Red Cross after a 1987 fire.

During the trial, Mr. Van Bavel cross-examined Sergeant Childs on why he brought a grieving mother into police headquarters for questioning the day of the fire. The exchange was heated, in part because the pre-trial ruling prevented Sergeant Childs from saying she became a suspect after police saw Gregory's condition.

The hallway debate that followed yesterday's mistrial was even more emotional.

Sergeant Childs said someone inside the house had to have started the fire because the doors were locked with deadbolts and the windows were covered with chicken wire.

Of those inside, he said, Ms. Lucas had the greatest motive: to cover up the alleged abuse before she was put out in the street with a malnourished baby that neighbors had rarely, if ever, seen.

He said the other children seemed to be placed so they could escape, but Gregory had been placed in a middle, upstairs room. He noted that only two days before the fire a Baltimore woman had been charged with abusing her grandson, a 6-year-old boy weighing only 24 pounds. The arrest received extensive news coverage and may have contributed to Ms. Lucas' fear of being charged with child abuse, the detective argued to Mr. Van Bavel.

Mr. Moore may have gotten the petroleum on his clothing from lying handcuffed in the street after the fire, Sergeant Childs said. And Eugene Weddington knew things that had not been reported in the news, such as the woman's pending eviction, the detective argued.

Mr. Van Bavel asked whether someone could have broken into the house to set the fire and said that, if someone inside did set it, two basement boarders had equal opportunity. He also insisted Ms. Lucas had no need to fear eviction because she could have received emergency assistance from the city and, even if she did lose her home, could have moved in with other family members.

Mr. Van Bavel also said that Mr. Weddington may have had a good reason to come forward and blame someone else for the fire. He could have feared being linked to the blaze by a wallet he may have lost at the scene, Mr. Van Bavel said.

While the detective and the defense lawyer wrapped up their debate, Mr. Lesser, the prosecutor, was saying the case would be retried, with a new date to be set today.

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