Retrial starts for Baltimore woman accused of killing six children in fire

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 26, 2017 12:19 PM

By Ian Simpson

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - A Baltimore woman charged with killing six of her children in a 1992 fire should be acquitted because the arson evidence in the case has been discredited, her lawyer said at the start of her retrial on Monday.

But a Maryland prosecutor told jurors there was still enough evidence to find Tonya Lucas, 53, guilty of a crime that officials at the time called one of the worst in Baltimore's history.

Lucas' case is among dozens in the United States in recent decades in which faulty arson investigation has led to reversed convictions and exonerations. She won a new trial last year after prosecutors admitted the arson science used to convict her on murder and arson charges had been discredited.

Neither side gave details on the discredited arson evidence on Monday.

During opening statements, prosecutors said Lucas was seen setting the fire in her home and wanted to cover up the abuse of her emaciated 2-year-old son, as well as to get other housing through the Red Cross.

The night before the blaze, Lucas had told neighbors living in the basement how to escape from a fire, according to prosecutor Rita Wistoff-Ito.

"These children, their lives were snuffed out 25 years ago by the actions of their mother. Their lives were stolen from them."

Lucas offered oral sex to a man in exchange for crack cocaine the morning of the fire, and he saw her setting lighter fluid alight in the building, Wistoff-Ito said.

Six children ages 2 months to 12 years died, and a seventh child survived. As the prosecutor read out the names of her dead children, Lucas hung her head and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief.

Michele Nethercott, Lucas' attorney, told jurors the original investigation of the blaze had been mishandled through a lack of documentation and analysis and now-debunked arson science.

"In the last 25 years, firefighters have learned a lot about how fire starts, how they develop and how they spread," she said in her opening statement.

Investigators' main mistake was trying to find out who had set the fire instead of probing how it started, Nethercott added.

There have been 36 exonerations since 1991 in U.S. cases that included arson, at least partly because of false or misleading forensic evidence, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Eleven of them have occurred since 2015, according to the registry, maintained by two Michigan law schools and the University of California-Irvine.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Dan Grebler)