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Court: Louis Taylor cannot collect for 42 years behind bars in Pioneer fire case

A Tucson man who spent 42 years in prison on 28 arson-related murder counts that were later vacated cannot now collect damages for the time he spent behind bars, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it took “no pleasure in reaching this unfortunate result,” but said the deal that allowed Louis Taylor to go free after decades in jail also prevents him from winning damages from Pima County.

In a sharp dissent, Judge Mary Schroeder said the court’s ruling “magnifies an already tragic injustice” against Taylor, who was 16 at the time of the fatal fire at a Tucson hotel.

“He was convicted on the basis of little more than (his) proximity and trial evidence that ‘black boys’ like to set fires,” Schroeder wrote of the case against Taylor, who is black.

Timothy Stackhouse, one of Taylor’s lawyers, declined Thursday to comment on the ruling. Nancy Davis of the Pima County Attorney’s Office said the office would not comment on the case because it could go back to district court.

Taylor was 16 in 1970 when a fire broke out in Tucson’s Pioneer Hotel, ultimately killing 29 people. Investigators said the fire was arson and Taylor was arrested for setting it, then convicted in 1972 of 28 counts of murder in the blaze and sentenced to 28 consecutive life sentences.

Leading up to the plea bargain that allowed his release, attorneys volunteering with the Arizona Justice Project worked on the case for more than a decade, arguing that jury tampering, evidence tampering and racism played in a role in the all-white jury’s conviction of Taylor, who is black. They also asserted that pressure to convict someone following the fire contributed to his prosecution.

The CBS news program “60 Minutes” brought national attention to Taylor’s case in 2002.

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The “60 Minutes” account said rescue crews ran into Taylor and asked him to help bang on doors to warn guests about the fire. He did so and agreed to go to the police station as a witness. However, he became a suspect when officers reported finding five books of matches on him.

Rick Unklesbay, chief trial deputy with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, said that Taylor also told investigators and hotel staff that he saw people start the fire. Later, Taylor admitted that those stories were lies, Unklesbay said in 2013, at the time of Taylor's release.

In 2012, Taylor and others working on his behalf presented new evidence that they said showed the fire was not set. The government disputed the new claim, but offered Taylor a deal: It would vacate his previous convictions and reduce his sentence to time served if he pleaded no-contest to the murder charges.

At the time, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall asked the Tucson Fire Department to re-examine the case, and the department concluded the cause of the fire couldn’t be determined based on the evidence available today. LaWall said that finding in addition to the fact that most of the witnesses have died would make it extraordinarily difficult to re-convict Taylor. Though she said the evidence in Taylor’s trial had met the burden of proof, she agreed to the deal. LaWall said the department’s conclusion might have prompted a judge to call for a new trial.

“If that were the case, we would find it extraordinarily difficult to re-convict because witnesses have died, they’re deceased, much of the evidence has been destroyed and is no longer available so we had to do that balancing test,” she said in 2013.

LaWall said the agreement didn’t exonerate Taylor.

“Louis Taylor was found guilty by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and … we assert that the evidence that was presented to them at that time was more than sufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.

Taylor walked free from prison in April 2013, publicly maintaining his innocence despite the guilty plea.

"They did a bad thing," Taylor said. "The [Pima] county attorney didn't want to do the honorable thing by curing the injustice."

"I wasn't going to let 'em take another minute, another hour, another decade from me for something I didn't do," Taylor said the day after his release. "I'm fortunate to be here, it's kind of overwhelming."

At the time of his release, Taylor’s lawyers said the no-contest plea would make it difficult, though not impossible, for him to file a lawsuit against the county in order to get financial compensation for the time he spent behind bars.

Taylor said then that he was not interested in seeking compensation from the government.

"You can't make up for 42 years, you just gotta move forward," Taylor said. "It's just through the grace of God that I persevered through such adversity."

Even so, Taylor eventually sued the county and the city of Tucson claiming his rights to due process and a fair trial were violated in the original prosecution, including racial bias and withholding evidence, according to Schroeder.

A district judge rejected the county’s claim that it was immune from the suit, but said that Taylor could not recover damages for wrongful imprisonment.

The appeals court agreed. Judge Susan Graber wrote for the majority that under Supreme Court rulings a plaintiff “may not seek a judgment that would imply the invalidity of a state-court conviction,” and while his original convictions were vacated, the no-contest plea is in essence a valid conviction on the same charges.

James and Donna Hamm, who run Middle Ground Prison Reform in Tempe, said the deal offered by the county put Taylor – who had spent all of his adult life behind bars at that point – in a tough position. James Hamm said he agreed with the legal reasoning behind the case, but thinks that Taylor should never have agreed to the no-contest plea.

“He took the easy way out,” Hamm said. “If he had insisted on a new trial, he would have won, but it would have meant months or even years (longer) in jail.”

Donna Hamm was more blunt, saying Taylor’s lawyers should have known the precedent and expected the result.

“His lawyers need to go back to 101,” she said.

Schroeder said in her dissent that Taylor took the quickest route to getting out of jail instead of pressing for a new trial that could have taken years. She said the deal, offered to an inmate already in his 60s, was coercive.

“We should not tolerate such coercive tactics to deprive persons of a remedy for violations of their constitutional rights,” she wrote. “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.”

Taylor has found himself back behind bars, serving a three-year sentence for armed robbery after using a baseball bat to steal money from a desk clerk at the Riverpark Inn in Tucson in 2017. He's due to be released in 2020.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith and Rebekah Zemansky contributed background to this report.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Taylor spoke to reporters after his release from prison in 2013.

Taylor case timeline

  • Dec. 20, 1970 - Pioneer Hotel fire, Louis Taylor is arrested
  • Feb. 9 - March 21, 1972 - trial
  • March 28, 1972 - Taylor sentenced to life imprisonment
  • July 8, 1975 - Arizona Supreme Court affirms conviction
  • Feb. 18, 1977 - Arizona Federal District Court denies petition for habeas corpus
  • July 3, 1978 - Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacates conviction, remands to Arizona Federal District Court
  • May 18, 1981 - Arizona Federal District Court again denies habeas corpus
  • June 7, 1982 - Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals again vacates conviction and remands
  • May 23, 1983 - United States Supreme Court reverses Ninth Circuit and affirms conviction
  • Oct. 23, 2012 - petition for Post-Conviction relief filed on basis that Taylor is innocent
  • Jan. 2013 - Pima County Attorney's Office offers to resolve case
  • April 2, 2013 - hearing before Judge Richard Fields, Taylor is released