6 deaths bring life terms Fire that Lucas set killed her children

October 05, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

Tonya Lucas was sentenced yesterday to the maximum penalty of six consecutive life terms in prison for setting the fire that killed six of her children -- a crime described by the judge and the prosecutor as one of the worst in Baltimore's history.

"It is despicable, and I think it is unspeakable as well. Nobody can accurately describe the full import of this crime," Baltimore Circuit Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman said before sentencing Lucas.

"Six separate young lives have been lost, and I think there must be appropriate punishment for each of them."

Lucas, 30, continued yesterday to say authorities were framing her. Her voice broke twice during her remarks to the court, but she showed no emotion when the sentence was announced. She said later that she had expected Judge Hammerman to assess the maximum sentence.

"It's not over yet," Lucas said while being led handcuffed from the courtroom. "Judge Hammerman might play God, but he is not God."

Lucas was convicted in July of six counts of first-degree felony murder and one count of arson in the July 7, 1992, fire that killed six of her seven children. The guilty verdicts came nearly four months after her first trial ended in a mistrial when that jury could not agree on a verdict.

In both trials, prosecutors argued that Lucas set the family's East Baltimore rowhouse on fire to get help from the Red Cross because she was facing eviction that day. In the second trial, the prosecutors added another motive, saying Lucas set the fire to cover up evidence of child abuse by incinerating the body of a 2-year-old son who weighed 10 pounds.

And, although prosecutors never claimed that Lucas intended to kill the other children who died in the fire, Judge Hammerman told her yesterday, "There is ample evidence to suggest you set the fire with the intention of burning up whatever was in the house, human or nonhuman."

The judge said he was especially distressed by the results of a psychiatric evaluation that showed Lucas had no mental disorders that would predispose her to commit such a crime.

"This to me highlights the callousness that you showed," he told Lucas. "It highlights the total disregard to the lives of these children. It highlights the terribly, terrible heinous nature of this crime."

Earlier, prosecutor Jack I. Lesser, who asked for the maximum sentence, said Lucas apparently spent much of the more than $1,400 in government checks she received monthly on drugs instead of rent.

Mr. Lesser described the woman as a "cold, calculating, manipulative murderer and liar" who had been investigated four times by social workers for allegedly neglecting her children.

In one case, when social workers looked into an accidental burn sustained by her oldest son, Antoine Lucas, Lucas "appeared apathetic and showed no interest in the child," Mr. Lesser said.

In another instance cited by the prosecutor, social workers opened an abandoned-baby investigation when Lucas could not be found in the days after the birth of Gregory Cook, the son who at age 2 weighed 10 pounds and was said to be within days of dying when the fire killed him.

"This is without a doubt, in our opinion, one of the worst crimes committed in the history of the city of Baltimore, because we not only have six dead people, but we have six dead children who could do nothing to ward off the abuse and neglect inflicted on them by this defendant," Mr. Lesser told the judge, who later said he agreed with that assessment.

Lucas told the judge she was innocent and that authorities had encouraged prosecution witnesses to lie. She called her failure to regularly take her children for medical attention "the biggest mistake in my life" but added, "I never starved my child. I never beat my child."

In the courtroom, members of Lucas' family wore black T-shirts that read: "Tonya Lucas is innocent" on the front and "Free her!" on the back. They sat somberly, having been warned by Lucas' lawyer, Mark A. Van Bavel, to expect Judge Hammerman to assess the maximum sentence.

Russell Williams Sr., father of 5-year-old Russell Williams Jr., who died in the fire, said of Lucas' sentence, "She deserved it."

Mr. Van Bavel said an appeal will focus on the ruling that allowed into the second trial testimony about Lucas' alleged child abuse. Judge Hammerman denied yesterday Mr. Van Bavel's motion for a new trial, ruling that a newly discovered witness was not credible and lacked information sufficient to change the trial's outcome.

Lucas is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 2 on charges of physically abusing Gregory.

Her boyfriend, William Cook III, is scheduled to stand trial on similar charges on Oct. 28.

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