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Judge bars testimony of confession in arson trial

Caleb Lacey, 19, of Lawrence, is accused of

Caleb Lacey, 19, of Lawrence, is accused of intentionally setting a house fire in North Lawrence that killed four people. (March 21,2009) Photo Credit: File / Howard Schnapp

Jurors deciding whether Caleb Lacey is guilty of setting a fire that killed four members of a Lawrence family will likely not know that Lacey confessed to the crime, after a Nassau judge ruled Tuesday that the detective who interrogated Lacey cannot testify about the confession, lawyers in the case said.

Nassau County Court Judge Jerald Carter had previously thrown out an eight-hour videotape that prosecutors say shows Lacey confessing to setting the fire that killed a Lawrence mother and three of her children, saying that the tape's sound quality was too poor to play for a jury.

Tuesday, Carter ruled that the detective who took the confession, Carl Re, cannot testify about the confession because he did not stop questioning Lacey even after Lacey invoked his Fifth Amendment right. He can testify only about what Lacey said before invoking his right against self-incrimination, the judge ruled.

Reached Tuesday, Edit Vanegas, whose wife and children were killed in the fire Lacey is accused of setting, reacted furiously to the ruling.

Lacey "killed my wife and my children," Vanegas said in Spanish. "Where's the justice? He has to pay for what he did."

The jury might hear about the confession if Lacey takes the stand, in which case prosecutors would have the right to cross-examine him about his confession, Carter ruled.

Lacey's March 20 interrogation is the first videotaped by Nassau police as part of a new policy to do so in all homicide and serious robbery cases.

Police did not take a written confession from Lacey. But besides the sound quality issue, it is possible that the Fifth Amendment ruling could have led to at least a portion of the videotape being thrown out anyway. Nassau police spokesman Det. Sgt. Anthony Repalone declined to comment on Re's actions or on Carter's ruling Tuesday because Lacey's case is pending.

Prosecutors say while Carter's ruling is damaging, they have ample evidence to convict Lacey without it. That evidence includes surveillance video showing Lacey's car near the home that burned around the time the fire started, and gasoline found in the lining of the pants he used as a volunteer firefighter, prosecutors have said.

It was prosecutor Michael Canty who told the judge that Lacey had invoked his Fifth Amendment right during questioning. Canty did not object to Carter's ruling Tuesday.

"We have very strong evidence that points to the defendant's guilt and we look forward to presenting that to a jury," Canty said.

Lacey's attorney, Christopher Cassar of Huntington, said the suppression will hurt the prosecution's case. "There are no eyewitnesses. There are no inculpatory statements. There is no scientific evidence. Their case is based on smoke and mirrors," he said.

Police say Lacey, 20, doused his neighbor's staircase in gasoline, then lit it and drove to the Lawrence-Cedarhurst firehouse to await the 911 call. The Feb. 19 fire killed Morena Vanegas, 46; her son Saul Preza, 19; and Morena and Edit Vanegas' two daughters, Andrea, 10, and Susanna, 9.

Lacey has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and arson charges. Carter set a trial date of Jan. 11, Canty said.

Defense lawyer William Petrillo, of Rockville Centre, who is not connected to the case, said capturing police misconduct is precisely the reason that he and other defense lawyers pushed for the videotaping. Police and prosecutors, in turn, said they welcomed the cameras to quiet claims of police coercion.

But Petrillo said it's ironic that the first interrogation available for public viewing shows the defendant's rights were violated.

With Bart Jones

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