Defendant's tiny son was at death's door before fire, court told BALTIMORE CITY

July 22, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

TC

A 2-year-old East Baltimore boy who weighed 10 pounds was at the brink of death when he was killed last year in an arson fire that also claimed the lives of five siblings, the state's chief medical examiner testified yesterday.

Dr. John E. Smialek was testifying in the murder trial of Tonya Lucas, the mother of little Gregory Cook and the five other children. Dr. Smialek said an autopsy of Gregory revealed that he had suffered extreme dehydration and emaciation before dying of smoke and soot inhalation on July 7, 1992. He said the boy also suffered from malnutrition.

"The dehydration reflected by the lack of fluid in his eyes indicated to me that Gregory's health was in a most precarious state," Dr. Smialek told the Baltimore Circuit Court jury. "He could have died at any time. Had it not been for the fire, he could have died within an hour."

He said the boy's weight was "grossly below" the normal level for a child his age and that all of his organs were unusually small. He said Gregory's brain weighed 750 grams, or about 26 ounces, which he said is far less than is normal.

Dr. Smialek also said the boy had two fractured ribs and a fractured leg. He said all of the fractures occurred weeks before the fire, something medical examiners were able to determine by the healing that had begun.

Gregory Cook's condition was the more severe of two alleged cases of child abuse brought up during the trial. Takia Cook, 3, another victim of the fire, weighed only 19 pounds and was malnourished, Dr. Smialek said. He said there were no other medical conditions in either case that caused the children's lack of development.

Prosecutors called Dr. Smialek to the stand as part of their attempt to show that Ms. Lucas, 29, set fire to her home in the 2400 block of E. Eager St., hoping to kill Gregory and cover up evidence of child abuse that would have been exposed had she been evicted, as scheduled, the day of the fire.

Prosecutors have said that Ms. Lucas, who is charged with arson and six counts of first-degree murder, did not intend to kill her other children.

In Ms. Lucas' first trial, which ended in a mistrial April 1 when jurors could not agree on a verdict, prosecutors did not allege that she intended to kill any of her children.

Prosecutors 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 that he would not allow such testimony. Instead, they contended that she inadvertently killed the children after setting the family's rowhouse on fire in the hope of gaining assistance from the Red Cross.

But Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman ruled that evidence about alleged child abuse would be allowed in the second trial.

Judge Hammerman, who is presiding over the second trial, allowed Assistant State's Attorneys Jack I. Lesser and Marcella A. Holland to argue that Ms. Lucas' motive in setting the fire was to cover up child abuse. And, over the objections of defense attorney Mark A. Van Bavel, he allowed Dr. Smialek to testify as an expert in the area of child abuse.

Dr. Smialek said that Gregory Cook's autopsy stood out in his mind.

"This one child was extremely unusual because of the terrible state of emaciation he exhibited," he said of the boy, whose autopsy photographs were shown to jurors.

Mr. Van Bavel sought to prove that young Gregory's physical state was created by problems resulting from premature birth. Under cross-examination by the defense lawyer, Dr. Smialek said the boy had suffered from a condition that can halt the flow of oxygen to the brain.

But the medical examiner said that evidence showed that none of those conditions was responsible for the boy's arrested development.

The prosecution rested its case after Dr. Smialek's testimony.

The first defense witness called by Mr. Van Bavel was William Cook III, the father of five of Ms. Lucas' children, including Gregory and Takia. Mr. Cook took the stand only long enough to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as his lawyer, Jack Rubin, stood beside him.

Mr. Cook is being held at the Baltimore City Detention Center on three charges of child abuse. He was arrested the day after Ms. Lucas' first trial ended.

The second defense witness was Leon Newton, who was called to discredit the prosecution's star witness, Eugene Weddington. Mr. Weddington testified that he saw Ms. Lucas set fire to the home. Mr. Newton said Mr. Weddington once worked for his contracting firm and was "not very honest."

On Tuesday, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms forensic chemist Raymond O. Keto testified that tests taken on Ms. Lucas' clothing contained traces of gasoline and another petroleum product.

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