A hamburger, a walk in the desert and a baseball game. Pretty mundane stuff for most of us, but not if you have spent the last 42 years in prison, as Louis Taylor has, for a crime he says he never committed.
Taylor walked out of jail in Arizona this week, a free man, but without the satisfaction of having his widely disputed conviction for the arson deaths of 28 people overturned by the state that locked him up all those long years ago.
Louis Taylor was 16 years old in 1970 when a downtown Tucson landmark, The Hotel Pioneer, caught fire just before Christmas. The old hotel was packed with out-of-town Christmas shoppers, many from Mexico, and with folks attending a party for Hughes Aircraft employees. Young Taylor was at the hotel, too, he said to cage a little food and maybe pick up a drink or two. As the fire raged through the multi-story hotel Louis, at the direction of a first responder, went door-to-door alerting people to the blaze. Some fire fighters later said they considered him a hero for helping get hotel guests out of the burning building, while tragically others died of carbon monoxide poisoning or from leaping to their deaths.
Later than night, after extensive questioning by police without a lawyer or other adults present, Louis Taylor was arrested and charged with the arson deaths of 28 victims – another person died later of injuries. Taylor’s story to police, it must be noted, was inconsistent and confused, but the police and arson investigation was, as well. No recording was made of the police interview and if officers made notes of the interview with the teenage Taylor those records never surfaced. An all-white jury convicted the young African-American boy and he was sentenced to consecutive life sentences for 28 arson related murders.
Decades later Louis Taylor’s cause was taken up by journalists – the CBS ’60 Minutes’ story by Steve Kroft is a classic piece of investigative television reporting – and by a group of volunteer lawyers, former judges and law students who staff the Arizona Justice Project. One of Taylor’s pro bono lawyers, former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman told a Tucson television station, “I can’t imagine a case where in which someone was convicted of a crime, a truly horrible crime on so little evidence.”
The collective work of the volunteer lawyers and the pushy journalists eventually succeeding in raising enough doubt about whether the Pioneer Hotel fire really was a case of arson that the Pima County, Arizona prosecutor Barbara LaWall finally agreed to petition the court, not for a new trial for Taylor, but for a convoluted and fundamentally unsettling deal whereby Taylor agreed to plead “no contest” to the 28 murders in exchange for his release for time served – 42 years. He also gave up all rights to seek compensation or to be considered not guilty in the eyes of the law.
Taylor is a free man this week and he spent his first hours of freedom visiting an In-and-Out Burger, taking a walk in beautiful Sabino Canyon in Tucson and watching the Arizona Diamondbacks play baseball in Phoenix. He says he’ll start over and devote his life to doing good works.
I’ve followed this case since ’60 Minutes’ broadcast its first story in 2002 and, while Taylor’s long story can properly be characterized as some sort of delayed justice, it is also a supreme example of how the American justices system, with its delicate balance of protections for society and the accused, can be twisted and abused. Any fair reading of the facts of the Taylor case makes it clear that evidence that may have been exculpatory was never presented to the defense or the jury. The Arizona Justice Project’s deposition of one of the original fire investigators – a portion is included in Steve Kroft’s piece – is shocking. The investigator calmly concludes, without a hint of evidence, that the hotel fire had to have been set by a “negro” who must have been about 18. Five other independent fire investigators sifted the evidence from 1970 and concluded that the fire was of “undetermined” origin. As another Taylor lawyer says – no arson, no crime. Even the judge in the Taylor trial now admits he wouldn’t have voted to convict the young man.
And there is, of course, the reality of what was at least a six hour police interrogation of a young man of color who was questioned without the benefit of counsel. Put yourself in those shoes.
After noting that the investigators who determined in 1970 that the Pioneer fire was arson stand by that judgment all these years later, the Pima County prosecutor made the obvious admission that a new trial for Taylor, based on modern standards of arson investigation, would likely not result in another conviction. Still, hanging on a thin procedural thread, the prosecutor would only agree to the convoluted plea bargain that, while not exonerating Taylor at least set him free.
Read for yourself the tortured reasoning of the state in this relevant paragraph from the prosecutor’s filing with the Tucson court:
“The legal question presented to the court today is whether a review of the original evidence using new advances and techniques in fire investigation is legally ‘newly discovered evidence.’ Although this question hasn’t been addressed in Arizona, and it appears no Arizona court has ruled on the legal question of new arson techniques being ‘newly discovered evidence,’ at least one jurisdiction has determined that such advances in fire investigation techniques would constitute ‘newly discovered evidence.’ If that were the result in the instant case, the state of the evidence is such that the State would be unable to proceed with a retrial, and the convictions would not stand.”
So, why not just admit, given all the “new evidence” that Taylor’s conviction did not meet the threshold test of “beyond a reasonable doubt?” Good question for a prosecutor who told the court that the deal she insisted upon will “maintain the integrity of the defendant’s conviction.” LaWall, by the way, won re-election last fall with 97% of the vote against a write-in candidate.
As for Louis Taylor, as CBS reported, he “faced a choice as new doubts emerged about his conviction: He could continue his fight, maybe for years more, to clear his name and potentially sue for a big settlement. Or he could enter a plea and get out of prison now, giving up any opportunity to file a lawsuit against the state.”
“You can’t make up for 42 years. You just gotta move forward,” Taylor said and then he went to a ball game.
There are no doubt many lessons from Louis Taylor’s case, but the first and last lesson is this: the justice system we have, as good as it is, is never perfect. Mistakes are made because people are human and bias and racism and assumptions creep into to conclusions that become facts. It is equally true that future mistakes can only be avoided when good people, charged by us to do this essential and delicate work, admit when a mistake has been made. If you can’t be sure “beyond a reasonable doubt” then you can’t be sure at all.