A woman who was awaiting a fifth trial on arson and murder charges pleaded guilty on Tuesday and will not serve any additional time in prison for intentionally setting a fire that killed six of her children in 1992 in Baltimore.
Tonya Lucas, now 59, of Northwest Baltimore, who served more than 23 years in prison before being placed on home detention and pretrial release, appeared before Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert K. Taylor Jr. and accepted a plea agreement on one count of arson and six counts of first-degree murder. Taylor sentenced Lucas to life in prison, suspending all but the time she had already spent incarcerated, plus five years’ probation.
“There’s no point in me giving any kind of sentencing lecture in this case,” Taylor said. “The accusations here are the most horrendous I’ve seen as a judge.”
“I will take it on faith that the person you are today is not the person you were all those years ago,” he added.
Lucas, who has been free, declined to make a statement at sentencing.
Lucas was found guilty after her second trial in 1993 and ordered to serve six consecutive life sentences. The Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law later took on her case, and Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters granted a new trial in 2015 from a writ of actual innocence.
Prosecutors admitted that the science used to conclude that the fire was intentionally set had been discredited, but urged the court to keep the convictions in place. Trials in 2017 and 2019 ended with hung juries.
In a statement, Assistant Public Defender Anne-Marie Gering, Lucas’ attorney, said the plea agreement allows her client to avoid the “emotional and physical toll” of a fifth trial.
Lucas, she said, has metastatic breast cancer. By resolving the case, Gering said, her client is spared from reliving the trauma of the fire and the deaths of six of her children.
“She’s concentrating on her health and on her family,” Gering said in court. “And she’s done a lot of good things.”
Catherine Flynn, chief operating officer for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, outlined the following in support of the plea agreement:
On July 7, 1992, the Baltimore City Fire Department was called to a fire at a home on East Eager Street near North Port Street in East Baltimore. First responders found the bodies of four children in the house, and two children later died at the hospital.
The Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined that their cause of death was smoke inhalation. The manner of death was homicide.
Lucas was scheduled to be evicted that morning, and several witnesses reported that she bought and used “significant quantities of crack cocaine” in the days leading up to the fire.
Her 2-year-old son, Gregory Cook, had been abused. He was “horribly emaciated” and “appeared to be a skeleton.”
One witness, Eugene Weddington, stated that Lucas agreed to perform oral sex on him for $10. She later bought crack.
Lucas, he reported, stated that she was going to set her home on fire because she was facing eviction.
The American Red Cross, she told him, provides housing to people whose homes catch on fire. Lucas had applied for assistance from the nonprofit organization after a previous fire in 1987 but did not follow up.
Weddington reported that he saw Lucas squirt liquid in the living room and light a fire.
The Rev. Angela Burden, the sister of Russell Williams Sr. and the aunt of Russell Williams Jr., 5, who died in the fire, thanked the state’s attorney’s office for ensuring that justice was done and showing care and concern to her family members.
Loved ones supported the plea agreement and felt that it delivered justice for several reasons, she said, including the amount of time that Lucas previously served in prison as well as her illness. Burden said her brother could not attend the hearing due to the enduring memory and trauma of the loss of his only child.
Her nephew, she said, never had the opportunity to attend school, play in Little League and challenge his father in a game of basketball.
“Tonya, though we believe that there should be consequences for the decisions that you made, God is still merciful,” Burden said. “I pray, we pray as a family, that you have come to know the Lord.”
As a Christian and a minister, Burden said, she was called to forgive Lucas.
“I forgive you,” Burden said. “We forgive you.”