BALTIMORE, MARCH 10 -- In a case laced with allegations of drug use, perjury and sex for money, a 29-year-old woman went to trial today charged with murdering six of her seven children by setting fire to the house where they were sleeping.
Tonya Renee Lucas, her boyfriend, William Cook, and Lucas's 8-year-old son escaped the early morning fire on July 7, 1992. The other six children, ranging from 2 months to 12 years, suffocated in the heavy smoke of the blaze.
In opening statements today, prosecutors said that Lucas was facing eviction after spending her welfare check on cocaine. She set fire to her east Baltimore row house, prosecutors said, hoping the Red Cross would provide her with new housing, furniture and clothing.
Lucas is being tried under Maryland's "felony murder" law, meaning that even though she may not have intended to kill the children, she nevertheless can be charged with murder since the children died in the commission of a felony, the arson.
If convicted, Lucas faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Lucas "brought six children into this world and . . . sent six children out of this world," prosecutor Jack Lesser told a Baltimore Circuit Court jury.
Not so, said defense attorney Mark Vanbavel in an opening statement. He said a street drifter, alcoholic and sometime boarder at the Lucas house set the fire after becoming angry at Lucas, possibly because she had barred him from the house the previous night.
Vanbavel said Lucas was known in the neighborhood for her generosity and willingness to "take in strays" like the drifter, but she often refused him entry when he was "drunk or abusive."
Also, Vanbavel said, Lucas had "aunts and sisters all over this city who could take her in," eliminating any need to seek Red Cross help by destroying her house.
According to Lesser, the prosecutor, Lucas decided to set the fire but needed a "$10 blast" of cocaine to help her "summon the courage." She left the house, encountered a nearby resident, Eugene Weddington, and offered him oral sex in exchange for the $10 she needed, Lesser said.
He agreed, according to Lesser. The two then obtained the drugs, he said, and returned to Lucas's house, where Weddington observed Lucas pouring flammable liquid over the first floor and setting it on fire.
During the blaze, Lesser said, Lucas jumped to safety from a second-floor window, "thinking only of herself," and her boyfriend escaped later after helping to save one of Lucas's children.
Vanbavel countered that Weddington is an "admitted liar," who originally told a grand jury last summer that another man, probably the drifter, had set the fire after asking Weddington to help him by acting as a lookout.
Five months later, Vanbavel said, Weddington changed his story, telling police that Lucas set the fire.
Lesser acknowledged that Weddington lied to the grand jury, but said he did so to hide his involvement with Lucas from his girlfriend and father.