TOPICS > Politics

After 42 Years in Jail, Conviction Overturned in Case of Deadly Fire

April 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Louis Taylor was a teenager when he was convicted of murder for supposedly starting a fire that killed 29 people. Now 58, Taylor has been released from an Arizona prison after new information cast doubt on the evidence he committed arson. Judy Woodruff talks to Richard Ruelas of the Arizona Republic, who was in the courtroom.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: A deadly fire at an historic hotel, a guilty verdict for a teenager, and now, more than 40 years later, freedom for the man convicted of murder.

LOUIS TAYLOR, Newly Released from Prison: This is the tale of two tragedies, man, you know, the 29 souls, poor souls that lost their lives there, and my conviction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For Louis Taylor, today was the first day in more than four decades that began outside a prison cell. Taylor had been behind bars since he was a teenager, convicted of starting a fire in 1970 at Tucson’s Pioneer Hotel that left 29 people dead. Now 58, Taylor was released yesterday as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, after new evidence surfaced questioning his guilt.

MAN: How do you plead, guilty, not guilty or no contest?

LOUIS TAYLOR: No contest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Taylor maintained his innocence today. By entering a no-contest plea, he gained his immediate release, but he also gave up the opportunity to seek compensation from the state.

LOUIS TAYLOR: I wasn’t going to give them another minute, another hour, another decade. You know, I wanted out. The whole world knows I’m innocent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Prosecutors said yesterday they still believe Taylor is guilty, but cited factors that would make a new trial difficult.

BARBARA LAWALL, Pima County Attorney: Both the arson review committee and the Tucson Fire Department investigators concluded that, because of the lapse of time, the evidence no longer being available, the fact that some of it was degraded, some of it was missing, some of it had been destroyed, that the cause of the fire could not be determined at this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Taylor’s release came just days after a follow-up to a 2002 “60 Minutes” report cast doubts as to whether the fire was, in fact, arson. Taylor’s lawyers alleged that prosecutors committed misconduct in the original trial by neglecting to inform the defense team that no accelerants were found at the hotel.

For more on this story, we are joined by Richard Ruelas. He is a reporter with the Arizona Republic and he was in the courtroom yesterday.

Welcome to the program.

Remind us, why was Mr. Taylor, Louis Taylor, convicted in the first place?

RICHARD RUELAS, Arizona Republic: He was there at the fire that night.

Good evening.

He was there at the fire that night, December 1970. He told us today he was going there to attend some parties, maybe get some free food and drinks. He was kind of a juvenile delinquent in the area and known to police. The fire starts, and he ends up helping people out of the hotel. But as police are looking for suspects, he made some odd statements. He couldn’t quite explain what he was doing at the hotel. They found matches on him.

And police took him in for several hours of questioning and arrested him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then what was the new evidence that ultimately caused the law enforcement system to give him this chance to get out?

RICHARD RUELAS: It’s not so much newly discovered evidence, but a new way of looking at the evidence.

The science of fire has changed so much since 1970. One fire expert told me this week that the old way of determining arson was pretty much guesswork. But science had determined ways of finding out when there’s a flashover fire, and things that might have looked like arson before now might have been caused by an accident or something else like that.

So experts now looking at the evidence, his defense attorneys say, would have not been able to say it was arson and might have determined it being an accidental fire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as we just heard, Richard Ruelas, the prosecutors still say they believe he’s still guilty. He insists he’s innocent. So, does a cloud hang over this from now on?

RICHARD RUELAS: Well, there’s a gap between being able to take a case to court and prove it beyond a reasonable doubt and being able to actually exonerate somebody.

Legally, he is a convicted felon, and he has the legal responsibility for what happened. His no-contest plea allows him to maintain his innocence, but it has the legal weight of a conviction. He says that he didn’t do it and that he was wrongly convicted, and there’s a lot of evidence around the trial of withholding of the lack of accelerant being found. Prosecutors didn’t tell that to the defense.

They might have jumped to a conclusion that it was Louis Taylor based on his race, was one allegation, and the faulty science about the arson. Then again, there are people who will say Louis Taylor made a lot of inconsistent statements to police, and there were those books of matches he had on his person that are kind of unexplained.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us what it was like in the courtroom yesterday.

RICHARD RUELAS: It really seemed to open up some wounds for the relatives of victims who were in the front row of the gallery of the courthouse — the courtroom.

One of them chose to make a statement on behalf of all 29 victims. He said he didn’t want them to just be a list of names. He was four years old when his father died in the fire. And he let Louis Taylor know he bore no ill will against him, and he hoped that he didn’t waste his new beginning.

Taylor told us today that during the hearing, he wanted to hug that man, but his lawyers told him he needed to kind of maintain. And he said he wanted the hearing to be over with as soon as possible because, as he heard — as you heard him say on the clip, he didn’t want to give the state of Arizona one more minute, one more hour of his time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other than the sheer drama of this case, what is the importance of it?

RICHARD RUELAS: Well, if this conviction was overturned based on faulty science from the ’70s and — from the ’70s, there’s other arson cases from the ’70s and ’80s that might be reexamined under the light of the new ways of looking at fire science.

So there might be more of these cases coming down the pike.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what happens to Louis Taylor? He’s been in prison for 42 years. I read that he had very few family members. I guess just a niece was in court yesterday. What happens to him? Is there a system to help him acclimate back to the real — to the rest of the world?

RICHARD RUELAS: There is no formal system, because, you know, in — the Department of Corrections, if they know you’re going to be released, might help you reacclimate.

But the attorneys who worked on his behalf to get him out have kind of turned into ad hoc social workers over the last few weeks, trying to set him up with a place to live in Phoenix and try to help him reacclimate himself. This is a man who was a grade school dropout. He spent a lot of years in juvenile detention and reform schools. He was called incorrigible.

And he spent his adult years behind bars. And he said he picked up a lot of really bad habits doing so. And this was a man who didn’t ever think he would really face the possibility of release. So he learned some skills behind bars. He learned how to be a barber. He was a seamstress for a while. And he learned how to be a medical technician. And he’s going to have to hope that employers look beyond what is a felony conviction and maybe give him a chance at getting a job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remarkable story.

Richard Ruelas, thank you very much.

RICHARD RUELAS: Thank you. Good evening.