The case of Louis Taylor

On the evening of December 19, 1970, Louis Taylor was a 16-year-old African-American child, playing pool in downtown Tucson. After finishing his game, he walked through the cold winter air to the nearby Pioneer Hotel. Shortly after midnight, as Louis sat on the third-floor Mezzanine outside of a Christmas party hosted by the Hughes Aircraft Company, a man left the party shouting that there was a fire inside.

The hotel quickly turned into chaos. Firefighters and police rushed to the scene as guests and partygoers desperately tried to escape the growing inferno. Louis Taylor was not one of the people who ran away. Several witnesses reported seeing Louis carry injured guests out of the hotel on stretchers, and guide people onto elevators. 28 people were killed in the blaze.

At 2:00 am, while Louis was still rescuing people he did not know, a hotel employee approached a police officer and reported that he had seen a “Negro boy” on the third-floor stairwell, and that he had seen two “Negro boys with bushy hair” fighting when the fire started. Police found Louis, detained him, and drove him to the Tucson police station.

During hours upon hours of interrogation, Louis insisted, cried, and shouted that he didn’t kill anybody. Despite a lack of evidence that the fire had been set intentionally, police eventually arrested 16-year-old Louis and the County Attorney (CA) charged him with arson.

In February 1972 Louis was tried on 28 counts of first-degree murder before an all-white jury. Cy Holmes was one of the CA’s star witnesses; he was a fire prevention officer with the California Forestry Service. Mr. Holmes testified that the Pioneer fire must have resulted from arson, and identified the same stairwell that Louis Taylor has been standing in before the blaze as a possible point of origin of the fire. On March 28, 1972, the jury convicted Louis on all counts, and a judge sentenced him to 28 life sentences.

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In the Spring of 2012 the Arizona Justice Project, a nonprofit legal organization that helps exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted, asked the Court to reverse Louis conviction and grant him a new trial. As part of their efforts Louis’ new lawyers put together a panel of the top five fire investigators in the United States to review all of the original evidence. Using modern techniques, the panel concluded that there was no evidence that the Pioneer Hotel fire was arson. Current Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, who was first elected in 1996, commissioned the Tucson Fire Department (TFD) to look at the evidence anew. After reviewing all the evidence the TFD itself stated that it could not determine the cause of the fire.

As part of their efforts to exonerate Louis, the Justice Project also uncovered new, never seen, and very frightening parts of the prosecution’s case. Louis’ new lawyers deposed the State’s original fire investigator, Cy Holmes. After he swore to tell the truth, Mr. Holmes testified that before completing his “independent” investigation into the Pioneer fire, he reached a “preliminary determination” that the fire was an arson and that the perpetrator was “probably black.” According to Mr. Holmes’ sworn testimony, he reached this conclusion because, in his opinion,

“Blacks at that point, their background was the use of fire for beneficial purposes. In other words, they were used to clearing lands and doing cleanup work and things like  that and fire was a tool. So it was just a tool for them…In other words, you’re comfortable with it. And if they get mad at somebody, the first thing they do is use something they’re comfortable with. Fire was one of them.”

After thousands of hours of work, the Arizona Justice Project and Louis Taylor asked Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall to dismiss Louis’ case and let him out of prison. They cited the expert panel’s opinion – seconded by Ms. LaWall’s own TFD investigation – that there was no evidence that the Pioneer fire was an arson. Louis and his lawyers also discussed the completely discredited and indeed embarrassing “expert opinion” of Cy Holmes.

Despite this mountain of evidence that Louis Taylor was not given a fair trial in 1972, that the Pioneer Hotel Fire may well have been an accident, and that the CA’s “star witness” was a crank and an abject racist, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall refused to dismiss Louis Taylor’s case. She offered to release him from prison, but only if he pled no-contest to arson and murder charges. This was her decision even though she admitted to Louis’ attorneys that her office was unlikely to produce enough evidence to convict Louis a second time if the court did end up granting him a new trial.

CBS’s 60 Minutes news program and journalist Steve Kroft picked up Louis’ case, broadcasting a story about him in March 2013. CBS tried to interview Ms. LaWall, but she refused to sit down and answer their questions. In a classic 60 Minutes moment, Mr. Kroft waited outside of Ms. LaWall’s office, lobbing questions at her as she walked down the street.

Mr. Kroft asked Ms. LaWall about the Tucson Fire Department report that said there was no conclusive evidence that the Pioneer fire was intentionally set. Ms. LaWall shrugged off the question, and responded that,

“No one can say for sure whether it was or whether it wasn’t [an arson].”

Mr. Kroft also asked Ms. LaWall about Cy Holmes’ racial views, and Ms. LaWall agreed with Mr. Kroft that Mr. Holmes “said some pretty embarrassing things.” Nevertheless, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall steadfastly maintained that,

“Cy Holmes can make a determination as to whether or not it’s arson or not arson.”

On March 2, 2013, after spending 42 years behind bars for heinous crimes that the Pima County Attorney herself admitted could not be proven “for sure,” Louis Taylor accepted a no-contest plea and was released from prison. After maintaining his principles for 42 long years, Louis distrusted the legal process and wanted to live the rest of his life as a free man. He still insists that he is innocent. You can watch the entire 60 Minutes segment, including Ms. LaWall’s interview and portions of Mr. Holmes’ deposition below.

Despite of popular belief inspired by TV shows and movies, a prosecutor’s main job is not merely to convict people. According to the ethical rules set out by the American Bar Association, a prosecutor is not simply an advocate. In fact, they are a minister of justice. Their job is to do justice, and nothing less.

Was Mr. Taylor afforded the justice we are all due under the Arizona and U.S. Constitutions? Did the families of those who perished in the Pioneer Hotel fire receive justice when Mr. Taylor was sentenced to life in prison? It is up to us to answer these questions, and if the answers are “no,” it is up to us to make sure that what happened to Louis Taylor never happens again.