Prior Knowledge Excuses 75 Jurors From Fire Case

Westminster Arson Trial To Begin Today After Slow Start

October 23, 1991|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER -- About three-quarters of the 100 prospective jurors stood yesterday when Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold asked if they knew about the apartment arson fire that killed a city manlast April.

One by one the jurors trooped before the judge to explain whethertheir knowledge would impede their ability to render a fair verdict.

The question, which was the first asked of the jurors, got jury selection off to a slow start as Arnold spent more than an hour and a quarter quizzing them about the case.

FOR THE RECORD - The headlines on the front page story in Wednesday's paper should have said 75 prospective jurors told the judge they had heard about thearson case.

More than five hours later, the prosecutors and defense attorney settled on the jury of seven women and five men.

The 12 county residents -- plus two alternates --will decide the fate of 35-year-old John M. Woodward.

The jury isset to hear opening arguments and testimony in the case starting at 9:30 a.m. today. The case is expected to last about two weeks.

Woodward is charged with first-degree murder, arson, and willful and malicious destruction in the April 24 blaze at an apartment building at 88 W. Main St.

The fire killed 49-year-old Carvin "Big Joe" Hanna,caused an estimated $100,000 damage to the apartment building and left 12 people homeless.

If convicted on the murder charge, Woodwardcould face life in prison without parole.

On Monday, Westminster defense attorney J. Barry Hughes argued before Arnold that parts of astatement Woodward made to police should be kept out of evidence during the trial.

Arnold granted Hughes' motion to suppress statements Woodward made about his involvement in other fires that had occurred in Carroll before the apartment fire.

The judge rejected an argument by Hughes that Deputy State's Attorney Edward M. Ulsch should bebarred from prosecuting the case because he was present when Woodward made those statements.

Ulsch is prosecuting the case -- which has been called one of the most unusual handled by county fire and police investigators -- along with Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman.

Police and fire officials have called the case "unusual" because, two months after the blaze, they had one crime and two men who confessed to it.

Police said Charles "Chicken Charlie" Ogline toldthem just hours after the blaze was extinguished that he had set thefire.

Ogline was indicted by a Carroll grand jury May 9 and charged with arson and murder.

But fire and police investigators continued their probe into the fire, and charged Woodward with the crime less than a month later.

The charges against Ogline were later dropped. He is expected to testify for the state against Woodward this week.

Hughes argued in court last month that statements Woodward madeto police about the apartment fire should be kept from a county jury.

Hughes argued in a suppression hearing before Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck that statements Woodward made May 15 to Westminster Police Detective Lt. Dean Brewer and Deputy State Fire Marshal Frank Rauschenberg about the fire were involuntary and illegally obtained.

The attorney told Beck he believed his client felt pressured into making incriminating statements because he believed Brewer and Rauschenberg were his friends. Hughes said Woodward told them what he thought they wanted to hear.

Experts for the defense testified last month that Woodward was mentally retarded and that he could not understand his Miranda rights when they were read to him.

Ulsch argued that other experts hired by the state found that Woodward is not mentally impaired and that he understood the consequences of his confession to the police.

Beck agreed with the state's argument and ruled that the evidence showed Woodward understood his rights when they were read to him.

In his taped statements, Woodward said he set some papers on fire on the apartment building's porch to get "revenge" on Ogline, a drifter who often slept there on a couch.

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