WESTMINSTER — John M. Woodward had claimed since May 16 that he did not start a fatal fire at a Main Street apartment building.
Late Monday night, 12 county residents said they believed him.
A jury of seven women and five men acquitted Woodward, 35, of first-degree murder, arson, and willful and malicious destruction in thefour-alarm fire April 24 that killed a man and gutted the building.
The blaze at 88 W. Main St. killed Carvin "Big Joe" Hanna, left 12people homeless, and caused at least $100,000 damage.
Woodward would have faced life in prison without parole if he had been convictedon the murder charge.
His trial was dominated by the verbal dueling of psychologists and psychiatrists hired by the state and defense to testify about Woodward's mental status.
Westminster defense attorney J. Barry Hughes put Woodward's mental ability on trial as much as his role in the fire.
The psychiatrist and psychologist hired by Hughes to testify in Woodward's behalf painted a sad picture of Woodward's life and bolstered Hughes' contention that his client was coerced into telling police May 15 that he set the blaze.
But State'sAttorney Thomas E. Hickman and Deputy State's Attorney Edward Ulsch presented experts who testified that Woodward was not mentally retarded and that he set the fatal blaze to get revenge on a homeless man who slept on the building's porch.
The homeless man, Charles "Chicken Charlie" Ogline, originally had been charged with setting the fireafter confessing he set it. The charges against him later were dropped.
Woodward sat stoically at the defense table throughout the trial as the experts testified he was brain-damaged, he "bottomed out" on tests of his reading skills and he suffered from "perseveration," acondition where his brain gets stuck on one idea.
He heard his brothers talk about how their father was an abusive alcoholic and his mother suffered from mental illness.
He listened to them tell how she would run away from home and hide, and Woodward and his brothers would have to find her and bring her home.
While Hickman and Ulsch acknowledged that Woodward had learning disabilities, they claimed heunderstood his rights when they were read to him by police and knew the consequences of his confession to setting paper on fire and placing it on the couch to scare Ogline.
Hughes argued in pretrial hearings that Woodward's confession should be suppressed because it was obtained illegally and given involuntarily. Circuit Judge Raymond Beckdenied Hughes' motion.
But after spending much of the trial on Woodward's background and ability to be swayed by others, Hughes spent his closing argument telling the jury the state was prosecuting the wrong man.
"You should acquit John Woodward of the offenses in thiscase because of defense exhibit No. 1," said Hughes, referring to Ogline's signed confession to setting the fire.
Hughes called Oglinethe downfall of the state's case, criticizing them for not bringing in Ogline to recant his confession.
"The state's case should be like the afternoon sun -- clear, strong and direct," Hughes said. "Theydon't have that with the cloud of Ogline."
Hickman said Ogline was not called to testify because he is unreliable.
In his closing argument, Hickman told the jury Woodward was guilty of the crime because he had the "mark of Cain," a legal phrase that denotes knowledge that only the person who committed a crime can have.
Woodward's "mark of Cain," the prosecutor said, was that he told apartment residents the fire started on the porch sofa before the fire marshal determined its point of origin.