Court: Statements in fatal fire wrongly admitted
By DENISE LAVOIE, AP Legal Affairs Writer
BOSTON (AP) — Prosecutors must reduce a first-degree murder conviction or grant a new trial to a woman who set a fire that killed a mother of four, the state's highest court ruled Tuesday, finding that Brockton police didn't honor her request for a lawyer.
The Supreme Judicial Court upheld Chiteara Thomas' conviction for arson but said her first-degree murder conviction cannot stand.
During her 2010 trial, prosecutors said Thomas used a cigarette lighter to start the 2006 fire after a dispute with a first-floor tenant.
Olinda Calderon, 28, who lived on the third floor, was pulled unconscious from the fire but later died of smoke inhalation. Several other people were injured when they jumped from windows to escape.
In her appeal, Thomas argued that the judge at her trial should have suppressed statements she made to police. She said she initially told police she wanted a lawyer but later agreed to talk to them without a lawyer after an officer implied that would be her chance to give her version of what happened.
The high court agreed.
"Because the police officers here did not scrupulously honor the defendant's right to cut off questioning until she had the benefit of counsel, and instead sought to persuade her to change her mind by suggesting that 'lawyering up' was costing her the opportunity to tell her side of the story, we conclude that ... the statements the defendant made that day in response to that questioning should have been suppressed," Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the court.
Thomas was 22 and homeless at the time of the fire. The first-floor tenant, Michelle Johnson, sometimes allowed Thomas and her boyfriend to stay in the apartment but had told Thomas to move out.
Thomas, angry that Johnson was preventing her from living with her boyfriend, repeatedly threatened to kill Johnson and burn the house down, according to testimony at her trial.
On the day of the fire, a neighbor who lived across the street saw Thomas reach into a window on the first floor, then saw a reddish-orange glow from the windows and saw Thomas running away from the house.
Thomas initially denied setting the fire but later admitted she used a lighter to set a curtain on fire. She said she never intended to hurt anyone. It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors would seek to retry Thomas or reduce her conviction to second-degree murder. A spokeswoman for Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.Associated Press