BOSTON — A woman who was convicted of murder following a deadly fire but complained statements she made to police shouldn’t have been used against her will be retried, prosecutors said Tuesday.
The state’s highest court, finding that police didn’t honor the woman’s request for a lawyer, had ruled earlier in the day that prosecutors had to reduce the murder conviction or grant a new trial to the woman, who was blamed for setting a fire that killed a mother of four. The Supreme Judicial Court upheld Chiteara Thomas’ conviction for arson but said her first-degree murder conviction could not stand.
During Thomas’ 2010 trial, prosecutors said she used a cigarette lighter to start the 2006 fire after a dispute with a first-floor tenant. A third-floor tenant, Olinda Calderon, died of smoke inhalation, and several people were injured when they jumped from windows to escape.
Thomas, in her appeal, argued that the trial judge should have suppressed statements she made to Brockton 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, which also overturned Thomas’ conviction on 13 counts of attempted murder related to residents of the building, agreed with her.
“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.
Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz said prosecutors will retry Thomas on the murder and attempted-murder charges.
“This was a horrific fire that left victims, including small children, jumping from a burning building to save their lives,” he said. “There was overwhelming evidence that this defendant acted with deliberate premeditation to kill, including setting fire to a house filled with women and children at 5 o’clock in the morning.”
Thomas’ appeals lawyer, William S. Smith, said police lured Thomas into speaking to them after she said she wanted a lawyer.
“Here, there was much that understandably troubled the court, including the officer’s having, very arguably, chastised my client for her having invoked her right to legal counsel by accusing her of having lawyered up,” Smith said.
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 her apartment but had told Thomas to move out.
Thomas, angry that Johnson was preventing her from living with her boyfriend, repeatedly threatened to kill her and burn the house down, according to testimony at her trial.
On the day of the fire, a neighbor saw Thomas reach into a window on the first floor and then saw a reddish-orange glow from the windows and saw Thomas running away, according to testimony.