Man convicted in 1970 Arizona fire pleads no-contest for freedom
After four decades in prison for an Arizona mass murder he has always vehemently insisted he did not commit, Louis Taylor will sometime Tuesday walk out of the shadow of confinement -- a free man.
Now 59, he was convicted in 1970 in connection with a Tucson hotel fire that killed 29 people.
Taylor was 16 when he went to jail, sentenced to 28 consecutive life sentences.
Now that crime and all that time will soon be in his past. He pleaded no-contest to the charges in a Tucson court, allowing the wheels of justice to move toward his freedom.
His lawyer told the Los Angeles Times that the plea deal almost did not happen.
Taylor, who is black, contends he was wrongly convicted by an all-white jury after he says police failed to investigate other suspects. The teen was helping victims escape the blaze before being arrested later that night.
“Over the years he‘s been offered his freedom if he would admit that he did it. If he did that, people would make recommendations for clemency, for the government to commute his sentence. But he was adamant,” attorney Michael Piccarreta told The Times.
“He almost didn’t take this deal because he didn’t want any inference that he was guilty, but we explained to him that you can plead no-contest and still maintain your innocence.”
The fatal fire took place at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson where employees of an aircraft company were celebrating at a Christmas party. Many guests were trapped in their rooms as the blaze engulfed the building, and fire truck ladders were too short to reach the upper floors. Some victims jumped to their deaths while others burned in their rooms. Others died from carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Taylor was assisted in his claim of innocence by the Arizona Justice Project, which mounted his legal battle. The group, which works on behalf of inmates believed to be wrongly convicted, asked a court in October to dismiss the case or hold an evidentiary hearing, noting several experts using modern forensic science could testify that it was indeterminable whether the fire was arson.
On Tuesday, officials were pleased with the outcome.
“For Louis, freedom has been a long time coming, far too long,” Larry Hammond, founder of the Arizona Justice Project and attorney for Taylor, said in a statement. “He spent his entire adult life in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. The fire at the Pioneer Hotel was a tragedy -- and our hearts, and Louis’, go out to the victims and their families -- but no credible expert today could conclude that the fire was arson, let alone that Louis was the arsonist.”
Taylor’s appeals were exhausted after the U.S. Supreme Court denied him a new trial in 1983. While in prison, his spirits were boosted by the judge who presided over his trial, who before his death publicly expressed skepticism about the conviction. He stayed in touch with Taylor, sending him Christmas gifts and law books, Piccarreta said.
Taylor was expected to be freed sometime Tuesday after being processed and is scheduled to give a news conference Wednesday in Phoenix.
Piccarreta told The Times that Taylor would have eventually prevailed at a new trial, but the process could have taken a long time.
“He could have fought the case at a new trial and be released in a year or two or plead and be released today,” Piccarreta said. “Historically, when an innocent man gets released after serving 41 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, that just takes your breath away. He went to jail as a young man. He’s not young anymore.”
Groups who fight for the rights of the wrongly convicted hailed the development as a victory for equal justice nationwide.
“After awhile, people in prison maintaining their innocence get beaten down,” said Bill Oberly, executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project, which currently has seven active cases in court. “When you see someone celebrate a turnaround, it generates more interest.”
Piccarreta credited the diligence of the Arizona Justice Project, which contacted him a few years ago to take part in the case.
“They worked for years,” he told The Times. “Their team included three ex-state bar presidents, one ex-Arizona Supreme Court justice and a former state court of appeals judge. Most people in Mr. Taylor’s position are left to languish.
“But that didn’t happen this time.”
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