Judge rules jury may hear tape of mother admitting she set fire that killed her daughters Woman doesn't recall making statement to police

February 03, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A jury can hear Rene Elizabeth Aulton's confession in which she told police she had set the fire that killed her two young daughters, a Baltimore Circuit judge ruled yesterday.

Judge John C. Themelis said he was satisfied Ms. Aulton voluntarily made the statements to police and that she had not been wrongly deprived of the services of a lawyer her mother had hired for her.

The decision came despite Ms. Aulton's pretrial testimony yesterday that she did not remember confessing, even after a tape was played in court in which she told detectives she started the Nov. 15, 1994, fire to kill herself and the children. A defense psychologist also testified this week that Ms. Aulton has intelligence one level above mental retardation and is able to read more than she can understand.

Ms. Aulton, 27, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson in the deaths of her daughters Christina Lambert, 4, and Natalie Aulton, 2. The girls perished in their rowhouse in the 2300 block of Fleet St.

Assistant Public Defender Mary Jo Livingston, who represents Ms. Aulton, said she was disappointed by the judge's ruling but believed that jurors still would doubt whether the confession was given freely.

"The state still has to prove it was an arson," Ms. Livingston said. "If you can't prove that, what better way to show that the confession was coerced?"

Prosecutor Gary Honick argued that despite her low intelligence, Ms. Aulton sounded calm and convincing during her taped statements. "The bottom line is that no lay person would be able to discern that there is anything mentally wrong with this defendant," he said.

In statements to police after the fire, Ms. Aulton first claimed that she was downstairs when the flames broke out. Then she said that she had dropped a burning cigarette into an upstairs closet while having a "flashback" about Christina's father, Joseph Lambert, who she was afraid would soon be released from prison and assault her.

In the final statement, on Nov. 23, 1994, she told detectives she set the fire with burning paper to kill herself and the children because she was "depressed" over Mr. Lambert.

Yesterday, Ms. Aulton said she did not recall that last version. "I don't remember none of it," she said.

She also said that when police called her after her initial statement, she told them to "talk to my lawyer" and that she did not want to take a lie-detector test.

On Thursday, the lawyer, Gill Cochran, testified that he had agreed to take Ms. Aulton's case a few days after the fire as a favor to her mother, Sharon Aulton, a longtime friend. He said he instructed Baltimore police Sgt. Terrence McLarney that he did not want a polygraph taken of his client until he could have his own test administered.

But Mr. Cochran went on vacation shortly after that. Sgt. McLarney testified that when he called Mr. Cochran's office, he reached a paralegal who was not aware Ms. Aulton was a client. Later, Ms. Aulton signed a consent form to take a polygraph. Under cross-examination by prosecutors yesterday, she acknowledged that she understood most of the words on that form.

She also acknowledged she did not ask for a lawyer when police spoke to her the final two times, or during the lie-detector test.

She described detectives' treatment of her during the investigation as "nice" and "friendly." But she did say she told them the second story -- about dropping the cigarette into the closet -- to "get them off my back.

"I had just lost two little girls," she said. "I was hurt. I was sad. I just wanted them to leave me alone."

Jury selection in the trial is scheduled for Monday.

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