WESTMINSTER — A city man denied setting a fatal fire in an East Main Street apartment building at least 10 times before telling police he started the blaze, a recording of the interview showed last week.
In a tape of the interview played in court Friday, John Woodward repeatedly deniedsetting the April 24 fire when he was interrogated by Westminster City Police Detective Lt. Dean Brewer and Deputy State Fire Marshal Frank Rauschenberg.
Woodward is accused of first-degree murder, arson and willful andmalicious destruction in connection with a four-alarm fire that killed 49-year-old Carvin "Big Joe" Hanna, caused $100,000 damage to the apartment building and left 12 people homeless.
If convicted of murder, Woodward could face life in prison without parole.
The tape of Woodward's interview came on the third day of testimony in a case police and prosecutors have termed "unusual," because, two months after the blaze, they had one crime and two men who had confessed to it.
Police and prosecutors claim Woodward set the fire to annoy a homeless man, Charles "Chicken Charlie" Ogline, who often slept on the building's porch.
A few hours after the blaze, Ogline told police he set the fire. He was charged with the crime, but the charges against him were later dropped.
Woodward and his attorney, J. Barry Hughes of Westminster, claim the wrong man is being prosecuted. They say Ogline is the arsonist and that Woodward was pressured by police intosaying he set the fire.
On the tape, Woodward repeatedly told Brewer and Rauschenberg that he did not go on the porch before heading up to his apartment on the night of the fire.
Brewer told Woodward two people saw him on the porch, but Woodward continued to deny it. After Brewer reminded Woodward several times that he could trust the detective, Woodward admitted to the arson.
"I didn't mean to hurt anyone," Woodward said on the tape. "I just wanted to get him away from the apartment."
Brewer testified that when Woodward came in to the interview, he was confident and sure of himself.
"When we started to focus in on him as a suspect, he started to stutter and rub hishands," the detective said.
Brewer testified that he began to investigate Woodward as a suspect after Woodward's roommate, Gary Grimes, told police Woodward was involved.
Hughes criticized Brewer and Rauschenberg for their tactics in questioning Woodward, for calling him "bud" or "buddy" to gain his trust.
In his opening argument to the jury, Hughes said the pair "tricked, cajoled, pressured and, ultimately, convinced" Woodward he set the fire.
Hughes maintains thatWoodward is mentally retarded and could not have understood his Miranda rights when they were read to him. Hughes also claims his client did not understand the consequences of his actions when he confessed.
He has portrayed Woodward as a man who wants people to like him and who will tell people whatever he thinks they want to hear.
But State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman and Deputy State's Attorney EdwardUlsch say that Woodward is not mentally impaired and that he understood the consequences of his confession to police.
Before the trialbegan, Hughes moved to have Woodward's statements suppressed, but Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. denied that motion.
On Wednesday and Thursday, several former residents of the building -- including Grimes -- testified about the fire.
Grimes testified that he had no direct knowledge of Woodward starting the fire.
Under cross-examination by Hughes, Grimes said Woodward never told him he set the blaze.
Other residents told what happened to them during the fire but said they didn't know how it started.
In response to a question from Hughes about whether Woodward ever told "tall tales," building owner John Lescalleet testified that Woodward often made up excuses when he was behind in his rent.
"He one time said he had an inoperable brain tumor," Lescalleet testified.