PHOENIX – A black Arizona teenager went to prison in the 1970s to serve a life sentence for a fatal fire he has always claimed he didn’t start.
In 2013, experts using new science technology determined that the Tucson Pioneer Hotel fire that killed 29 people may not have even been arson.
That same year, after spending 42 years in prison, Louis Taylor was freed at age 59.
But he was never compensated for his decades in prison. And recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that he likely never will be – all because of the legal maneuver Pima County used to let him out.
“We take no pleasure in reaching this unfortunate result, given Taylor’s serious allegations of unconstitutional actions by the county,” Circuit Judge Susan P. Graber stated in the ruling.
Now, Taylor is using Graber’s own words to ask the full 9th Circuit to reconsider the three-judge panel’s decision, saying in court filings that restitution is the only way to “remedy this profound injustice.”
And they appear ready to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general under the Obama administration, has joined Taylor’s legal team. Katyal has argued nearly 40 cases before the Supreme Court.
Louis Taylor’s story
His mother told him to stay home, but the 16-year-old didn’t listen that December evening in 1970, Taylor told The Arizona Republic in 2013.
He went to a pool hall in downtown Tucson before walking to the Pioneer Hotel to attend a party hosted by the Hughes Aircraft company, according to court records.
While he was there, a fire started in the hotel.
“Mr. Taylor was seen throughout the hotel, banging on doors, waking people up, and guiding disoriented people out of the burning building,” court documents said.
Twenty-nine people died in the fire, including two families.
According to court documents, a hotel employee approached a police officer, and said he saw a “Negro boy” inside the hotel who “appeared startled” and that two other “boys with bushy hair were fighting when a fire started.”
Police questioned Taylor for hours and didn’t allow him a phone call, according to court documents.
He went to trial in Maricopa County because of all the publicity in Pima County. An all-white jury found him guilty of 28 counts of second-degree murder; he wasn’t charged for the 29th death, a woman who died of smoke inhalation several months after the fire.
Help from the Arizona Justice Project
For 10 years, the Arizona Justice Project worked to secure Taylor’s freedom.
The nonprofit organization began 21 years ago as a way to provide free investigation and legal representation to the wrongfully convicted.
At the time of its creation, it was the fifth innocence organization in the country. Unlike the other organizations, it was the only one created by the defense community and not through a law school, said executive director Lindsay Herf.
Formerly, the project operated out of a private law firm. Now, it’s inside the law library at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
The organization handles many of the cases itself. But it provides law students the opportunity to help with a few through the school’s Post-Conviction Clinic, which attorney Katherine Puzauskas leads.
Over the years, the Arizona Justice Project has helped get 25 people released from prison.
“We don’t always win,” Herf said. “It is an adversary system.”
For Taylor, attorneys and law students combed over thousands of files, including from the trial, juvenile records and Tucson Fire Department reports. They found and interviewed witnesses who were still alive so many years later.
The project hired fire experts from across the country to review the Fire Department’s findings. They concluded the fire was caused by the effects of flashover and had one point of origin, unlike what original investigators said. The trial expert for the defense, Marshall Smyth, also based his opinions on flashover and said the cause should be classified as undetermined, according to court records.
The Arizona Justice Project filed a petition for post-conviction relief in 2012, asking that Taylor be released or his sentence reduced. His petition claimed newly discovered evidence could demonstrate his conviction was obtained in violation of his constitutional rights and that “no reasonable fact-finder would have found him guilty of the underlying offense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
However, before the court could respond to the project’s filing, Pima County offered a plea agreement.
“The reason we engaged in the plea discussions was that after more than 40 years, there were few, if any, remaining witnesses alive, the evidence in the case had been lost or destroyed over the previous decades and the likelihood of being able to once again successfully try the case were remote,” Deputy Pima County Attorney Rick Unklesbay told The Arizona Republic.
He said the County Attorney’s Office still believes Taylor is guilty, citing evidence at trial, testimony to the police, statements made to others in detention, and witnesses at the hotel.
“In short, while the evidence in the 1972 fire was strong, we would not have been able to bring those witnesses in front of a jury again,” Unklesbay said. “Therefore, both sides agreed to settle.”
For Taylor, it offered a faster and more assured route to freedom, as opposed to going through years of new court proceedings or hoping a governor would grant him clemency.
By taking the plea agreement, Taylor’s original convictions were vacated. He pleaded no contest to the 28 counts, was resentenced to time served, and then released.
“Four decades is a long time. It’s a lifetime for some people,” he told the Republic in 2013. “Some babies never make it out of the womb. I thank God I persevered through all of that.”
Allegations of wrongful conviction
There isn’t one reason that causes wrongful convictions and prosecutors can’t take all of the blame, according to experts.
Carmen Naso, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said there is a deeper problem: systemic injustice.
“Louis’ case had a lot of intentional misconduct by the police and by the county attorney,” Herf said. “But not every case has that.”
According to Louis’s petition, there were numerous problems with Louis’ case. It alleges:
- Two jailhouse informants testified against Taylor.
- A witness recanted his testimony twice.
- Prosecutors did not disclose all the evidence before trial.
- The prosecutor discussed pending and anticipated defense motions with a trial judge.
- The prosecutors received undisclosed information about jurors during the trial.
“There was a report not turned over to the defense regarding lab tests done for an accelerant that came back negative,” Puzauskas said. “There was a conversation with a dismissed juror by the state’s investigator regarding how the jurors were leaning.”
Naso said people who are participating in the system may have “tunnel vision” and not realize at the time that what they are doing isn’t right, such as:
- Locking in on one suspect.
- Confirmation bias — everything that doesn’t fit into a theory must be wrong.
The former prosecutor worked with the Ohio Innocence Project to help exonerate three men who spent 20 years in prison. According to The Associated Press, their team discovered a prosecutor hid witness statements.
Naso said sometimes people want to look for a scapegoat instead of looking for the sequence of events and looking for how things went wrong.
“People from both sides of the spectrum agree that we should not have innocent people in jail,” he said.
Plea agreements for the wrongfully convicted
After Taylor pleaded no contest in 2013, he was resentenced for time served and released from prison the same year. Pleading no contest means that a person is not admitting that they are guilty – but it also means they still have a criminal record.
Across the country, many people who are wrongfully convicted have accepted plea agreements in order to be released from prison. Many of these agreements can be considered “Alford pleas,” named after Henry Alford.
Alford was a North Carolina man charged with first-degree murder. He was offered a plea agreement if he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. However, he maintained his innocence and said he only agreed to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that there is no difference between a defendant who maintains his or her innocence but takes a plea agreement and a person who admits to the crime.
In Arizona, even pleading no contest can be considered an Alford plea.
One of the most well-known cases involving an Alford plea took place in West Memphis, Arkansas, where the bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found in 1993.
Three teenagers spent 18 years in prison after being convicted of the murders. Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison. Their friend, Damien Wayne Echols, was sentenced to death.
The New York Times reported there was a concern across the country at the time that teenagers were involved with satanic cults.
Echols wore all black and listened to heavy metal music. According to The Times, prosecutors argued the teens were members of a cult, and witnesses testified they heard them speak of the murders.
When new evidence arose, even though they always maintained their innocence, the three agreed to Alford pleas in order to secure their freedom.
According to Naso, some people believe plea bargains are unacceptable in cases of possible wrongful convictions because they can be coercive contracts leading an individual to think he or she is eliminating the risk of not being released.
Alford pleas may secure a person’s freedom, but they leave a criminal record, making it more difficult to find employment and transition back into society.
Jessica Henry, a professor at Montclair State University who researches wrongful convictions, said Alford pleas would be less necessary if prosecutors would shift their focus from just winning to the quality of their case.
She said prosecutors should remain open to reviews on what may have gone wrong in a case.
Some cities or counties, including Dallas and Cleveland, have created panels to review and address claims of wrongful convictions.
Pima County created a conviction integrity unit in 2014, a year after Taylor accepted his plea agreement. Unklesbay told The Republic the unit’s creation had nothing to do with Taylor, but with the awareness of the growth of units across the country.
“We felt that our obligations as prosecutors to make sure justice is done in all cases called for us to review claims of wrongful convictions,” he said.
The unit claims if it determines someone is wrongfully convicted, the County Attorney’s Office will file a motion to vacate the verdict.
However, in a brief to the court, the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice claims the unit has not brought a case to court to correct a wrongful conviction in nearly five years.
Why can’t people receive compensation?
Arizona is one of 17 states that do not have compensatory laws requiring that individuals who are wrongfully convicted be paid for their time in prison.
That would require an act of the Legislature and governor – an unlikely option under Arizona’s current Republican-led Legislature.
The other path to possibly getting such compensation is through a civil lawsuit. That’s the route Lewis and his attorneys took.
After being released from prison, Taylor filed a lawsuit against Pima County and Tucson in federal court. He accused them of violating his constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial.
“With respect to the County, Taylor alleged unconstitutional practices, policies, and customs regarding criminal prosecutions, including racially-motivated prosecutions of African-Americans and a failure to train and supervise deputy prosecutors,” court records stated.
The county argued that because of Taylor’s 2013 plea agreement, he could not receive damages.
The appeals court agreed – but it was a split decision.
“This decision magnifies an already tragic injustice,” Judge Mary M. Schroeder stated in her dissent. “At the time of Tucson’s Pioneer Hotel fire in 1972, Louis Taylor was an African American male of sixteen. Arrested near the hotel, he was convicted on the basis of little more than that proximity and trial evidence that ‘black boys’ like to set fires.”
The judge later stated, “We should not tolerate such coercive tactics to deprive persons of a remedy for violations of their constitutional rights. To say such a plea justifies the loss of 42 years, as the majority asserts, is to deny the reality of this situation and perpetuate an abuse of power.”
Since the ruling, several groups have submitted opinions to the court supporting Taylor, including the Innocence Project, the National Police Accountability Project, and the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
“Withholding release from prison until a prisoner first pleads ‘no contest’ or ‘nolo contendere’ is an exercise of power, providing a troubling example for prosecuting authorities in Arizona and nationwide,” Phoenix attorney David Abney stated in Arizona Association For Justice/Arizona Trial Lawyers Association’s brief to the court.
The appeals court ruling came on top of a series of losses for Taylor.
After he was released, he was not placed on parole or put in a transition program. His mother was dead, leaving him mostly on his own to learn how to become an adult in society at a later age than most people.
Taylor worked jobs landscaping and at a local movie theater. At one point, he was homeless.
In 2017, he was arrested for attempting to rob Tucson’s Riverpark Inn with a baseball bat. He is at the Lewis facility in Buckeye and is expected to be released in 2020.
Follow Lauren Castle on Twitter: @Lauren_Castle.