Louis Taylor Served 42 Years for Arson Murders that Fire Investigators Now Believe Was Not Arson
Contact: Paul Cates, 212-364-5346,
(Tucson, AZ; April 2, 2013) – A Tucson court has overturned the arson murder conviction of Louis Taylor based on new reports from both prosecution and defense arson scientists showing that the 1970 fire at the Pioneer Hotel that killed 28 people was not arson. Taylor, who has served 42 years for the crime, accepted a no contest plea in the case in order to be released from prison.
“This is a deeply troubling move by the County Attorney’s office, which should be seeking to investigate what went wrong in the case rather than forcing Mr. Taylor into a plea that precludes the opportunity to obtain civil liability against law enforcement,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “Mr. Taylor has served more than four decades in prison for a crime that arson scientists now believe never even happened, and forcing him to accept this plea will make it that much harder for him to enjoy what’s left of his life.” Scheck also noted that unlike some states, Arizona doesn’t have a law guaranteeing compensation for those who have been wrongly convicted.
On December 19, 1970, Louis Taylor, a 16-year-old African American, left a pool hall in downtown Tucson and walked to the Pioneer Hotel where several Christmas parties were underway. Shortly after he arrived, a fire broke out in the Hotel. As flames spread, Taylor assisted emergency workers and helped guest escape the blaze. However, police later decided Taylor’s presence at the hotel was suspect and took him to the precinct where he was interrogated throughout the night. Although Taylor always maintained his innocence, he was arrested for the crime before there was even a report that the fire was arson.
Taylor was tried by an all white jury and sentenced to life in prison, narrowly escaping the death penalty. The prosecution relied upon the testimony of fire investigator Cyrillis W. Holmes, a fire prevention officer with the California Forestry service who was hired by the Tucson Fire Department to assist in the investigation, as well as the unreliable testimony of two jailhouse informants. (One had hit and run charges dismissed against him in exchange for his testimony. The other is the only witness who ever claimed that Taylor confessed, and he later gave many conflicting accounts of his testimony.)
Incredibly, Taylor’s lawyers recently conducted a sworn deposition with original fire investigator Holmes who claimed that he was able to determine that the fire was set by an 18-year-old black person as soon as he completed a quick walk through of the debris. In the deposition, Holmes says, “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.”
Taylor’s defense team also recently learned that prosecutors never informed Taylor that six samples of debris from the fire were subjected to scientific testing that found that no accelerant had been used. Lawyers also learned that the prosecution had improper communication with the judge prior to the trial.
In the years since Taylor was convicted, arson science and investigative methodologies have greatly improved. Now both experts for the state and the defense agree that there was no scientific basis whatsoever for concluding that the fire was caused by arson. The Tucson Fire Department as well as a panel of renowned fire experts have reevaluated the evidence and concluded that the original findings were based on outdated arson science. Based on these reports, there is no reliable evidence to retry Taylor on the charges.
Although the prosecution consented to the charges being overturned, Taylor was essentially forced to accept a no contest plea to the charges in order to be freed. (Even though the charges were overturned, the prosecution could have requested that bail be set while Taylor waited for a new trial on the charges.)
“It’s becoming increasing clear that far too many people have been wrongly convicted based on flawed arson science,” added Scheck. “In the aftermath of the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Innocence Project of Texas has already undertaken a massive review of arson cases there. But as the Taylor case illustrates, wrongful arson convictions can happen anywhere and more needs to be done to ensure that others aren’t behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.”
Last week the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the 1986 capital murder conviction of Ed Graf who was wrongly convicted of the arson murder of his 8 and 9 year-old step sons through similarly flawed arson evidence. 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. The Innocence Project initially asked the Commission to investigate the convictions of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis. Willingham was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three daughters although a prominent arson scientist informed Governor Rick Perry prior to his execution that the conviction was based on outdated science. Willis also faced the death penalty for arson murder but was exonerated after it came to light that the evidence used to convict him was scientifically flawed. In response to the Commission’s investigation, the Innocence Project of Texas has partnered with the Texas Fire Marshall’s Office to see if there were other cases where flawed evidence was used to convict. The investigation has yielded a handful of cases in addition to Graf’s that might have resulted in wrongful arson convictions.
The Innocence Project is seeking posthumous pardon from Governor Perry on behalf of Willingham and his surviving family members.