Catch up: Wednesday: Fowler admits being present at start of 2003 Old Fire | Tuesday: Fowler denies involvement during polygraph test | Monday: Detective testifies about finding those involved in Old Fire ignition
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SAN BERNARDINO - A law professor took the stand Thursday at the Old Fire trial to testify about false confessions.
The testimony came one day after San Bernardino Superior Court jurors heard audio in which suspected arsonist Rickie Lee Fowler initially denied he was present when the 2003 wildfire ignited, then change his story and say he saw someone else start the deadly blaze.
Professor Richard Leo of the University of San Francisco School of Law said some people who confess are not guilty but that number is relatively low.
"We do not know what percentage of confessions are false," Leo testified.
He said that especially on highly publicized cases, people sometimes falsely take credit.
"Some people just want to be known as the baddest person of all?" Defense Attorney Don Jordan asked.
"Correct," Leo said.
Fowler, 30, of San Bernardino, is suspected of starting the 2003 Old Fire that burned more than 91,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures after starting on Oct. 25, 2003. The fire cost nearly $38million.
The defendant has been charged with five counts of murder and special circumstances, which allow prosecutors to pursue the death penalty if he is convicted. Prosecutors say five residents in burn areas died from heart attacks caused by the stress of evacuation and threats to homes and belongings.
"The goal of an interrogation is to get a confession," Leo told the lawyers and jurors.
He added that two techniques of interrogations are accusations and evidence play - approaching the suspect with evidence of guilt.
Interrogators often bluff and say they know everything, Leo testified.
"The idea is to get the suspect to believe it's pointless to lie," he said.
But false confessions cause complications, Leo said.
Fowler admitted to authorities in February 2004 that he was present in Waterman Canyon, inside a van, when an acquaintance lit something and threw it onto the mountainside to make it catch on fire.
"A rag, a cloth, a sock, a towel - it was something," Fowler said in an audio recording played for the jury on Thursday.
He even agreed to show sheriff's deputies key spots he was at on the day of the Old Fire - including where the fire started, what route he and his companions took down the hill and what neighborhood they ended up in.
Fowler insisted he did not start the fire.
In 2008 Fowler told U.S. Forest Service special agents he was on the side of Waterman Canyon, holding a road flare in his hand - with intentions to start a fire - when a friend took it from him, lit it and threw it onto the mountainside.
Testimony is expected to continue Monday.
Reach Lori via email or call her at 909-483-9378.