Mother's convictions upheld in deaths

July 12, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Tonya Lucas failed yesterday in her bid to escape the six consecutive life sentences she received after being found guilty in the 1992 arson deaths of six of her children.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the state's second-highest tribunal, upheld her convictions, ruling that the trial judge did not err by admitting evidence pointing to her history of child abuse and drug addiction.

"We're obviously happy that justice was served," said Jack I. Lesser, an assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the East Baltimore woman in two trials in Baltimore Circuit Court. "We felt that the defendant was given a fair trial."

A year ago, a jury convicted Lucas 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. A mistrial was declared after her first trial in April 1993, when a jury could not reach a verdict.

In the second trial, prosecutors were allowed to use evidence that two children killed in the fire had been victims of abuse. There was expert testimony that one of her sons, 2-year-old Gregory Cook, weighed only 10 pounds and was on the brink of death when he died in the blaze. Witnesses said 3-year-old Takia, her daughter, was malnourished.

Prosecutors argued that Lucas set the fire to conceal the abuse. They also said evidence of drug use showed a financial motive for the crime -- they said she had squandered her rent money on drugs and set the fire to collect Red Cross benefits.

James Wyda, her appellate lawyer, argued that prosecutors should not have been able to use evidence of prior "bad acts." He said evidence of child abuse and drugs prejudiced the jury against his client.

"That kind of propensity evidence has long been considered inadmissible in Maryland courts," Mr. Wyda said yesterday.

But the three-judge appellate panel ruled that Baltimore Circuit Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman properly admitted the evidence describing the abuse, saying the value of the evidence outweighed any prejudice it created against Lucas in the minds of jurors.

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