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Pima County atty: 'No new evidence of innocence' in Louis Taylor case

Conover says she won't file to have conviction in 1970 Pioneer fire thrown out

After announcing earlier this year that she planned to file a motion to vacate the conviction of Louis Taylor in the deadly 1970 Pioneer Hotel Fire, Pima County Attorney Laura Conover said Wednesday that she has found "no new evidence of innocence" and will not do so.

In a statement leaked earlier in the day to the Tucson Sentinel prior to its public release, Conover said that Conviction and Sentencing Integrity Unit in her office had completed a review and "therefore, no further action will be taken in the Taylor criminal case. I have concluded that where the criminal case is concerned, I have met my ethical obligations as a prosecutor."

Taylor's lawyers at the Arizona Justice Project said that Conover "has foregone a critical opportunity to correct one of the most severe injustices Pima County has ever seen."

Taylor's attorneys in a civil suit being pressed against the city of Tucson and Pima County said Thursday that "Mr. Taylor was hopeful that the county would exonerate him and he is of course disappointed by yesterday's announcement. He remains confident that justice will be served."

Those attorneys, claiming his conviction was improper, have filed a "witness declaration" under seal, claiming to have new evidence in the case of the arson fire that killed nearly 30 people in Downtown Tucson. The contents of that sealed document are not known publicly — and Taylor's lawyers spent weeks refusing to disclose it even to the attorneys for the city and county. They have told the court that the witness faces threats of bodily harm or death if their identity becomes public. The filing was finally provided to the government defendants in the lawsuit this week, after the judge in the case ordered it to be turned over, but remains sealed.

Taylor, who is African American, spent 42 years behind bars after being convicted of murder in a trial that was tainted by racism. He was 16 years old at the time of the fire, and was released after a plea bargain in April 2013, in which he was sentenced to time served after pleading no contest to 28 counts of felony murder.

Despite the plea, Taylor continued to maintain his innocence. He has sued the city and county, seeking compensation for the time he spent in prison. That attempt was denied by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. Taylor has again filed, claiming there is new evidence.

The attorneys in that case told the Sentinel that Conover "has refused to consider additional evidence and opinions presented. The Pioneer Hotel fire was not arson. No crime occurred. Louis Taylor is innocent. He was wrongly convicted more than 50 years ago and still seeks justice."

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The prosecutors "publicly recognized in open court that (the) didn’t have the evidence to convict Taylor" in 2013, they said, claiming that the fire cannot be proven to have been arson, and that "ll other evidence against Taylor has been thoroughly debunked."

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

If Taylor is exonerated, it would open the door for him to again sue the city and county for millions of dollars in compensation.

Conover conflicted by earlier work on Taylor's behalf

Among those who assisted in the case were Conover, who played a small role in helping Taylor's lawyers, years before she ran for office in 2020.

That work on the Taylor case meant that a conflict of interest was declared regarding Conover as she was about to take over the Pima County Attorney's Office. That means Conover should not take part in working on the case on the other side, in her capacity as the chief lawyer for the county.

While Conover has repeatedly denied the existence of a conflict, and said that the previous county attorney, Barbara LaWall, and her staff declared the conflict without her participation or knowledge, public records show that Conover was informed of the process as it was taking place.

Because of that conflict declaration, the county has been using an outside law firm to defend against Taylor's suit.

Wednesday, Conover again said that determination was made "wrongly," and that "I have never represented or participated in the representation of Mr. Taylor, whether in law school 20 years ago or since."

A former prosecutor in PCAO, Rick Unklesbay, has been a critic of Conover's handling of the case. Unklesbay worked with LaWall when the decision was made about Taylor's plea deal, and ran what was then known as the Conviction Integrity Unit.

"There are emails from October of 2020 that show Ms. Conover was briefed by the prior administration about conflicting the Taylor case out of the office. So she was consulted," he told the Sentinel on Wednesday. "In addition her campaign website showed her claim that she had previously worked on Mr. Taylor's case. That was one of the main reasons for the conflict. Her attempt to bring the case back to the office led to resignations in the Civil Division."

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Conover had been about to ask a court to toss out Taylor's conviction entirely earlier this year, but her statement reverses that stance.

The shift comes one day after the Pima County Board of Supervisors met in an executive session for an hour, discussing the lawsuit behind closed doors.

Taylor's attorneys claim that both his 1972 and 2013 convictions should be tossed out. The criminal case against Taylor was "obtained by unconstitutional means," they say in his lawsuit, because one of the prosecutors in the original case engaged in "intentional misconduct" by suppressing evidence and "knowingly violated constitutional and ethical standards."

In the 2013 plea bargain, the county "violated Taylor's due process rights by requiring him to plead no contest to buy his freedom," the court filings in the federal lawsuit said.

In a statement sent to the Sentinel on Thursday, after this report's publication the previous day, Taylor's attorneys in the civil suit wrote that "Ms. Conover holds herself out as a prosecuting attorney willing to correct the injustices of the past. Her decision in this case belies that and shows she is more interested in protecting the County from financial exposure resulting from her predecessors' misconduct."

The lawyers said they were issue their statement "out of concern that Ms. Conover’s public comments could be misconstrued by members of the public — including persons who might one day might sit as jurors in Mr. Taylor’s civil case."

The supervisors did not indicate what decisions they reached during their meeting, but voted 4-1 to have attorneys "proceed as directed." Supervisor Adelita Grijalva was the sole dissenting vote Tuesday morning.

At the beginning of June, the county attorney was "considering filing a motion in Superior Court to vacate the conviction of Louis Taylor. However, a stakeholder request to meet with the Pima County Attorney’s Office has delayed the decision. Our office feels obliged to meet with that stakeholder before taking action," her spokesman C.T. Revere told the Sentinel on June 3.

Despite the Sentinel's questions, PCAO has not released information on who that "stakeholder" might be.

The "intent to exonerate Mr. Taylor was communicated to both city and county officials by Ms. Conover in May. I’m not sure what changed her mind but ultimately it is the correct decision," Unklesbay told the Sentinel.

The chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, Sharon Bronson, is legally barred from discussing what took place in the executive session.

"Laura Conover, as county attorney, is an independent elected official. I respect her decision," was all she would tell the Sentinel on Wednesday.

Just as Taylor's attorneys were, two months ago, "gathering and identifying new evidence, the PCAO advised that, having conducted a contemporaneous review, it would move to vacate Taylor’s convictions. It had even prepared a press release to that effect. For reasons never fully explained, however, that motion was not filed," the Justice Project lawyers said in a written statement provided Thursday, after the publication of this report.

"The purpose of a Conviction Integrity Unit is to ensure convictions have integrity. When a conviction lacks integrity, it should not stand," they said.

The Conviction and Sentencing Integrity Unit, as Conover named it when she took office, has been headed by Gabriel "Jack" Chin, a former University of Arizona law professor who now teaches at the University of California - Davis.

Conover's office has stonewalled providing public records about Chin and his work. While he remains listed as "senior counsel" on the PCAO website, on a page listing office leadership, sources within Pima County have told the Sentinel that Chin has not been working for PCAO since the week Conover announced she would seek exoneration for Taylor. Chin's absence was abrupt, sources said.

The Sentinel requisitioned HR records about Chin from PCAO, and officials replied that he was not an "employee" and there were no records. Two weeks ago, the Sentinel reiterated the list of records to provide, mentioning Chin's apparent status as a pro bono volunteer in the office. No records have been released.

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Chin is also still listed as a "supervising deputy county attorney" on the PCAO site.

David Berkman another former PCAO prosecutor and critic of Conover, has sued the agency, seeking records about Conover's involvement in discussions of Taylor's case.

Conover has withheld stacks of records, despite losing that suit. In June, a judge denied her request for a new trial on whether she must release records. 

In that ruling, Pima County Superior Court Judge Douglas Metcalf wrote that "it is a matter of great public concern whether the county attorney has her staff working on a case, on behalf of the state of Arizona as the plaintiff, where she previously represented the defendant in the same case. This concern is further heightened because any action that could vacate Mr. Taylor's conviction in the criminal case could negatively affect the county's defense in the pending civil case brought by Mr. Taylor. The court would further note that in Arizona, the mere 'appearance of impropriety' can create a conflict of interest."

"Is there an appearance of impropriety in the county attorney having her staff review a case, and communicating with her about its review, when the county attorney participated in a clinic in law school that represented the defendant in the very same case?," the judge wrote. "That is not for this court to decide, but the public has a right to know why the county attorney has her office reviewing a criminal case that ended seven years earlier, whether her representation of that defendant in that criminal case has any relation to why the office is reviewing that case now, and whether that creates an appearance of impropriety sufficient to be a conflict of interest."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

County Attorney Laura Conover speaks to the Board of Supervisors in April.

Conover's complete statement

As provided to the Sentinel by a source, prior to its general release.

County Attorney Conover Completes Review of Louis Taylor Criminal Case; Finds No Further Action Appropriate

When I ran for County Attorney, I promised that an important part of the prosecutorial reforms I intended to make would be to create a robust Conviction and Sentencing Integrity Unit (CSIU) that, under the prior administration, had only one quarter-time prosecutor reviewing cases that perhaps had gone wrong and needed to be revisited.

I have fulfilled that commitment. Since I took office, the CSIU has reviewed numerous cases, including the conviction of Louis Taylor, who spent 41 years in prison after being convicted in connection with 29 deaths that occurred in the 1970 fire at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson.

By way of background, in 2013, the previous administration of the Pima County Attorney's Office conducted its own review of the Taylor criminal case, with a focus on the fire investigation. That prior investigation concluded that modern fire science was inconclusive about whether the fire was intentionally set (arson) or was an accident.

Based on those conclusions, the previous administration offered Mr. Taylor a no-contest plea, which he accepted, and which allowed him to be released from prison in 2013.

The above decisions and actions about the Taylor criminal case were made long before I was elected. During my administration, CSIU commenced an independent review of the prior administration's conclusions, and of the Taylor criminal case as a whole.

During the CSIU review process, I have remained fully cognizant of the fact that I have a duty to represent my client, Pima County, against which Mr. Taylor has brought a civil lawsuit.

Some people have suggested that undertaking the CSIU analysis was in conflict with my duties to the County, but those suggestions have been in error. As County Attorney, I am both the County's lawyer and a prosecutor, with duties and responsibilities that are specific to each role. The CSIU review was just that – a review. I took no action contrary to Pima County's interests in the civil case, but by undertaking the CSIU review, I assured that my ethical duties as a prosecutor were met.

Others have alleged, wrongly, that I had a personal conflict of interest because, while in law school almost 20 years ago, they thought I participated in a clinic that represented Mr. Taylor. These allegations were wrong. I have never represented or participated in the representation of Mr. Taylor, whether in law school 20 years ago or since.

However, without consulting with me, the prior administration concluded that before I took office, I had a personal conflict of interest that precluded me from representing the County in the Taylor civil suit. And, again without consulting with me to inquire into the facts, the prior administration withdrew from the Office's representation of the County in the Taylor civil lawsuit and retained outside counsel, at taxpayer expense, to defend the County in the civil lawsuit.

The prior administration's conclusions were wrong, but rather than disrupt the defense of the County in the civil lawsuit, I chose not to contest their decision after I took office.

CSIU's review of the Taylor criminal case is complete and did not find any new evidence of innocence. Therefore, no further action will be taken in the Taylor criminal case. I have concluded that where the criminal case is concerned, I have met my ethical obligations as a prosecutor.

Now, the Taylor civil case will proceed with Pima County continuing to be represented by outside counsel.

In the meantime, I will continue to do the substantial work to be done on behalf of the citizens of Pima County – work that is critical to the safety and welfare of our community, including seeking alternatives to incarceration as society's way out of addiction and mental health problems that do not present a current danger to the community. My Office now will continue to focus on these important reforms.