Jury finds Lucas guilty of killing her 6 children Mother convicted of setting fatal fire

July 31, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

After two trials, the verdict is in on Tonya Lucas: Guilty on all counts, guilty of killing six of her seven children by setting a fire in the family's East Baltimore rowhouse.

A Baltimore Circuit Court jury yesterday convicted Lucas of six counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson. The verdict came nearly four months after Lucas' first trial ended in a mistrial when that jury could not agree on a verdict.

Lucas, 29, faces a maximum punishment of six life terms plus 30 years at her sentencing, scheduled for Oct. 4.

The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for nine hours over three days before reaching its decision. Lucas stood beside her lawyer at the trial table and faced the jury as the verdicts were about to be read. When jury forewoman Nicola Roy announced the first of the seven guilty verdicts, Lucas looked away as her face wrinkled in anguish.

As the forewoman continued to announce guilty findings, Lucas leaned forward against the table as if to steady herself. Then, with her lawyer, Mark A. Van Bavel, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, Lucas stood with arms folded, biting her lip as if to fight back tears.

As sheriff's deputies led her out of the courtroom for the trip back to the city jail to await sentencing, Lucas was asked whether she had committed the crimes.

"No, I did not," she said.

Told that one juror had said the deliberations came down to a question of who had lied on the witness stand, Lucas called out over her shoulder, "I have never lied."

Prosecutors argued that Lucas set the July 7, 1992, fire that killed the six children for two reasons: To obtain assistance from the Red Cross because she was facing eviction that day and to cover up evidence of child abuse by incinerating the body of a 2-year-old son who weighed 10 pounds.

Jurors interviewed after the verdicts were announced said the panel was not persuaded that Lucas set the fire to cover up the alleged child abuse. But the jurors did agree that Lucas set the fire to obtain assistance from the Red Cross, according to juror Charles Hall and Ms. Roy, the forewoman.

"I think she set the fire because the girl ran out of avenues," Mr. Hall said. "She said, 'I'll start a little fire and get a little assistance,' but she used too much liquid or something."

An important factor in the deliberations, the jurors said, was the testimony of Eugene Weddington. Mr. Weddington testified Lucas approached him the morning of the fire and offered to perform a sex act for $10. He said she bought drugs and told him of her plans to burn her house to get aid from the Red Cross, and he said he saw her start the fire.

During the trial, Mr. Van Bavel dismissed Mr. Weddington's testimony as unreliable, pointing out that the witness had admitted lying before the grand jury that indicted Lucas last summer. But the jurors found that Mr. Weddington's testimony rang true.

"How did he know about the Red Cross? How did he know where she set the fire? They're key points," Mr. Hall said. "He was too accurate on too many things to not be there at the time of the fire."

"That's what the detectives have been telling us for a year," Jack I. Lesser, who with Marcella Holland prosecuted the case, told the juror.

Another juror, Thomas Remeikis, said the deliberations turned on "who lied the least." Ms. Roy was more succinct; of Lucas, she said: "She lied."

In recording the verdict, a court clerk named the six murder victims: Damien Cook, 2 months; Gregory Cook, 2; Takia Cook, also 2; Deon Cook, 3; Russell Williams, 5; and Antoine Lucas, 12.

Members of Lucas' family who had been present for most of her two trials glared as the guilty findings were announced. One of the defendant's sisters, Michelle Lucas, said, "I still believe in my sister's innocence, and hopefully it's not over."

Asked why no one in the family had done anything about Gregory Cook, who doctors said had been starved within days of dying before the fire, Michelle Lucas said, "We weren't aware. He didn't look like he did in those pictures [taken after his death] the last time I saw him."

Mr. Van Bavel, the defense lawyer, said he was "crestfallen" but not surprised by the verdicts. He noted that the jury in the first trial had been split 10-2 in favor of conviction and he pointed to evidence of drug use and child abuse in the second trial that made guilty verdicts "a viable possibility."

In Lucas' first trial, prosecutors did not present evidence of alleged child abuse because Judge Clifton J. Gordy, who ruled on the bulk of the pretrial motions, made it clear he would not allow such testimony, Mr. Lesser has said. Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman ruled evidence about alleged child abuse would be allowed in the second trial.

"She had a lot of problems in her life, there was a lot of stuff going on, but she did not set this fire," Mr. Van Bavel said. "Instead of child abuse being a shadow in the case it overshadowed the case. It became the case."

Mr. Lesser, the prosecutor, said he would await the results of a presentence investigation and a psychiatric evaluation ordered by Judge Hammerman before deciding what sentence he will request. He also would not say what will become of pending child abuse charges against Lucas. Also charged with child abuse is her live-in boyfriend, William Cook III. Mr. Lesser said the one child who survived the fire, William Cook Jr., is in the custody of relatives of Lucas and Mr. Cook.

In the end, said the prosecutor, it was the suffering children who made the Lucas case one of the more emotionally draining of his career. He was especially troubled by Gregory, whose skin-and-bones condition was captured in a photograph shown repeatedly to the jury.

"I can't get his picture out of my mind. He's just so pitiful and helpless," the prosecutor said. "That's what's so tragic about this case, and she'll have to live with that the rest of her life."

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