Louis Taylor, wrongfully convicted of setting a 1970 Arizona fire that claimed the lives of 29 people, was finally released this week after 42 years in prison on a no-contest plea. The Pioneer International Hotel fire is the worst in Arizona’s history, though arson experts now believe that it wasn’t intentionally set.
The New York Times
reports on Taylor’s release:
“It’s two tragedies,” he said during a brief stop by the prison’s gates. “The Pioneer Hotel fire, and me being convicted.”
Mr. Taylor, 58, who did not even know how to drive when he went to prison at the age of 16, is facing a bleak future in an entirely unfamiliar world. His case is among several in recent years to call into question some of the scientific principles that once guided fire investigations — including the idea that multiple and independent points of a fire’s origin were proof of arson, a decisive element of Mr. Taylor’s prosecution.
Taylor is represented by the
Arizona Justice Project
. Additionally troubling is the racial bias that contributed to his wrongful conviction. Taylor was found guilty—and narrowly escaped the death penalty—by an all-white jury. One of the fire investigators who testified at his original trial offered a profile of the perpetrator as a young black man.
Despite the new scientific evidence challenging the finding of arson, prosecutorial misconduct, and other evidence of Taylor’s innocence, he has not been exonerated. Instead, he was forced to accept a no-contest plea in order to be released. The plea allows him to continue maintaining his innocence but the plea will almost certainly bar him from seeking civil remedies. Arizona is one of 23 states that does not provide exoneree compensation.
In another recent case, Ed Graf, of Texas, will receive a new trial based on doubts about the arson evidence that led to his 1986 murder conviction. Graf’s case was identified by the
Innocence Project of Texas
in response to a review of old arson cases that arose out of a multiple year investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Read the Innocence Project’s
press release about the case