Thursday, Oct. 3, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
Well-known Deputy District Attorney John Lukens has been transferred out of the Crimes Against Women and Children Unit that he headed for years.
District Attorney Stewart Bell said Wednesday's staffing decision was made to replace retiring veteran prosecutor Mel Harmon in the Major Violators Unit.
But office sources said the transfer had disciplinary undertones for Lukens' surprise finale at the penalty hearing last month for convicted baby killer James Meegan.
Lukens stunned the community and many in his office with his announcement during closing arguments that the death penalty was "inappropriate" for Meegan.
Just moments before, Deputy District Attorney Vickie Monroe had strongly urged the jury to consider the death penalty for the man who had shaken his 10-month-old daughter to death and then burned her body in an Arizona gully.
After a day of deliberations, the jury couldn't reach a unanimous verdict between a life sentence with or without the possibility of parole. District Judge Sally Loehrer then declared a mistrial and said she would personally sentence Meegan late this month, but death wouldn't be an option.
Bell would not deny that the Meegan case played a part in his decision to transfer Lukens, but emphasized that the primary reason was the need to name a quality replacement for Harmon, known for handling the office's toughest cases.
"Those are very big shoes to fill, and Lukens is one of the best lawyers in the office," Bell said. "He will be able to fill those shoes."
Lukens, who countered that "nobody can fill Mel's shoes," said the suggestion that the transfer was a disciplinary act is "nonsensical."
When the SUN asked readers' opinions this week whether the death penalty was appropriate in the Meegan case, every response indicated it was. And some called for Lukens' ouster because of the way he handled the sentencing.
Lukens will be replaced by Deputy District Attorney Thomas Moreo as head of the team that handles major sexual assaults and child abuse and death cases.
Moreo, who worked three years in the sexual assault unit under Lukens several years ago, currently heads another team that deals with more routine cases.
Deputy District Attorney David Barker will be promoted to Moreo's position, Bell said. All the changes will go into effect Oct. 21, when Harmon's resignation becomes official.
Lukens conceded that after his years as head of the Crimes Against Women and Children Unit, he has "less patience than I used to." He has handled many high-profile sex assault and child abuses cases in recent years.
"I thought that maybe it would be fun to try something else," he said, indicating that he had explored the possibility of a transfer with Bell before the Meegan trial began in August.
Bell said he received a memo from Lukens on that issue about 10 days ago.
The Meegan case drew national attention because the family managed to keep the child's death a secret for more than five years. It wasn't until the estranged boyfriend of Lillian Meegan's sister gathered enough information early this year and called homicide detectives that the case came to light.
Francine Meegan's charred body had been discovered just days after it was immolated in the central Arizona desert, but authorities never knew her identity or suspected she had come from Las Vegas.
The baby's mother, Lillian Meegan, pleaded guilty to child abuse and neglect for failing to get medical care when the infant stopped breathing. Loehrer sentenced her to 18 years in prison of a possible 20-year maximum sentence.