op-ed authored by civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia and Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative highlights the case of Louis Taylor as a prime example of how presumptions of guilt lead to wrongful convictions of minorities across the country.
Taylor was wrongfully convicted of setting the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire in Tucson, Arizona, which took the lives of 28 people. On the night of the fire, 16-year-old Taylor arrived at the hotel to attend a Christmas party and was arrested shortly after by police who claimed he had set the fire as a distraction so he could burglarize hotel rooms. He maintained his innocence for more than 40 years and was finally released this April based on new reports from arson experts hired by both the prosecution and the defense who all believed that the fire was not arson. The
Arizona Justice Project
, who represented Taylor continues to focus on the flawed fire science at the heart of the case.
Lewis and Stevenson write:
It would be hard to call Mr. Taylor lucky, but the truth is thousands just like him, including innocent children, are being victimized by a presumption of guilt that never sees black and brown youth as blameless, as engaged in proverbial “good, clean, fun” as harmless. Instead it attributes to them every violence and vice, even if those suspicions contradict the facts.
The presumption of guilt follows too many poor and minority children to school, a place where children should be nurtured and supported, not criminalized and incarcerated. Yet the pipeline from school to jail is so insidious, many parents now fear schools as much as they fear the criminal justice system.
During Taylor’s trial, a profiler swore under oath that the likely perpetrator was “a black teenager.” Taylor was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to multiple life sentences.
Despite progress, in the last 50 years we have retreated from an honest conversation about racial and economic justice, and have opted instead for mass criminalization and incarceration leaving many poor and minority people marginalized and condemned. As Taylor’s story reminds us, out of sight is hardly out of mind. It is an abysmal violation of human dignity.