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Judge may allow Lacey confession as murder trial begins

Caleb Lacey leaves the Nassau County Courthouse in

Caleb Lacey leaves the Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola. (Jan. 25, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Nassau judge may allow accused murderer Caleb Lacey's confession into evidence, after Lacey's defense lawyer gave an opening statement Monday that a prosecutor said misled jurors into believing that the Lawrence man had never admitted wrongdoing.

In his opening argument, Lacey's lawyer, Christopher Cassar, of Huntington, said despite intense questioning by police about the fire that killed four people last February, Lacey, 20, "stuck to his guns."

"He said, 'I did not do this,' " Cassar told the jury.

>> PHOTOS: Fatal Lawrence fire

That was true - during the first part of the interrogation. But later in the March 20, 2009 videotaped interview, police said Lacey broke down and admitted that he had set the fire that killed Morena Vanegas, 46, and three of her children, Susanna Vanegas, 9, Andrea Vanegas, 13, and Saul Preza, 19.

County Court Judge Jerald Carter had ruled in pretrial hearings that prosecutors could not show the videotaped confession because its sound quality was too poor. He also ruled that prosecutors could not question the detective who interrogated Lacey about the content of the interview after Lacey invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. That meant that the jury would likely hear no evidence of the confession.

But on the first day of Lacey's trial on murder and arson charges Monday, Carter said Cassar may have given jurors a misimpression, and said he will consider admitting the confession into evidence to allow prosecutors to correct that.

"When evidence is suppressed, that doesn't form a barrier that does not come down," Carter said in court. "Whenever you make an assertion to the contrary, that may open the door." Carter asked both lawyers in the case to submit written arguments on the issue.

Cassar said in court he did nothing wrong because he was only telling jurors what happened before Lacey pleaded the Fifth.

Also in his opening argument, Cassar tried to cast suspicion on Morena Vanegas' husband, Edit, as the real murderer in the case.

Cassar said police did not properly investigate Vanegas after the fire.

"He didn't get his daughters out. He didn't get his wife out. He didn't get his stepson out," Cassar said of Vanegas, who jumped out a second-story window with his two sons, then ages 9 and 12, to escape the horrific blaze.

Vanegas called the implication that he started the fire, "pure lies."

"If I hadn't been there with my children, that's one thing. But I was there, with my children," he said.

Prosecutor Michael Canty said in his opening statement that he does not believe Lacey meant to kill anyone when he set the fire. Rather, he said the then-18-year-old volunteer firefighter was sick of being teased about missing out on all the department's calls to big fires, so he set a fire himself, then drove to the firehouse and waited for the call. Canty said the plan was sweetened for Lacey because he considered Preza, a schoolmate, a possible threat to his new relationship with a girlfriend.

"He started the fire to show he could rescue Saul Preza and his family from a burning building," Canty said in his opening statement. "Except things went horribly wrong."

>> PHOTOS: Fatal Lawrence fire

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