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Monday, July 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Free After 42 Years, Man Blames Tucson

TUCSON (CN) - A man freed after 42 years in prison for a hotel fire that killed 28 people wants punitive damages from the city and county whose racist, "overzealous" and illegal prosecution he says put him there.

Louis Taylor was released from prison in 2013 with the help of the Arizona Justice Project, after spending most of his adult life behind bars for crimes he says he did not commit.

He sued the City of Tucson and Pima County on Jan. 30 in Pima County Superior Court.

Tucson police arrested Taylor, an African-American, on Dec. 20, 1970, after the downtown Pioneer Hotel caught fire, killing 28 people.

Taylor claims in a 22-page lawsuit that he "was arrested based at least in part on his race," in a city and county that at the time had a "custom of racial discrimination."

While investigators quickly concluded that the fire had been caused by arson and that Taylor was their man, there was never any "adequate or scientifically reliable evidence proving that the fire was arson, and thus, that any crime was committed with respect to this fire," the complaint states.

Taylor says there had been three fires at the Pioneer Hotel in the months before the deadly blaze, all of which officials believed were caused by arson.

Police suspected a man named Donald Anthony of starting the previous fires, but they arrested Taylor, though they had no reason to believe a crime had even been committed, according to the complaint.

"After his arrest, Taylor was interrogated by officers of the Tucson Police Department, in violation of his constitutional rights, over the course of several hours in the early morning hours of December 20, 1970," the lawsuit states.

He passed a polygraph test, Taylor says, but he was charged with 28 counts of murder and convicted in 1972 by an all-white jury.

Taylor claims that Horton Weiss, the deputy Pima County Attorney who prosecuted his case, "was well known to the Arizona judiciary as an overzealous and unethical prosecutor who habitually practiced on the edge of, and often beyond, what was ethically and constitutionally proper."

Taylor says Weiss and others withheld from the defense a report by Dr. C.A. Crutchfield, technical director of Truesdail Laboratories, that found no evidence of accelerants at the scene of the fire.

"This report was exculpatory evidence that plaintiff Taylor was entitled to have in his defense," the complaint states. "The defendants, and each of them, knowingly and wrongfully withheld this report from plaintiff Taylor and his criminal defense lawyer."

Weiss also induced a jailhouse snitch to testify that Taylor had admitted starting the fire with lighter fluid, though Weiss knew this to be untrue, Taylor claims.

"The above-mentioned co-conspirators reached a unity of purpose, a common design and understanding or a meeting of the minds in an unlawful arrangement - to arrest, charge and convict plaintiff Taylor, knowing that the fire may not have been arson, knowing that if it was arson, another person was a more likely suspect, deliberately withholding the exculpatory 'Truesdail' report, and recruiting and then calling as a rebuttal trial witness a person whose testimony was obviously false and whose testimony directly contradicted the wrongfully withheld 'Truesdail' report, all in violation of plaintiff Taylor's constitutional rights," the lawsuit states.

The Arizona Justice Project, one of many such organizations around the country that work to exonerate falsely accused inmates, often with the assistance, as in Taylor's case, of law-school students, took up Taylor's case and secured his release in 2013 through a petition for post-conviction relief.

His petition included the findings of a review of the evidence by a panel of "renowned fire experts," who concluded that arson was not the cause of the Pioneer Hotel fire.

Taylor agreed to plead no-contest in exchange for his release from prison on April 2, 2013. His convictions were later vacated.

Taylor seeks punitive damages for racial discrimination, failure to train, conspiracy and prosecutorial misconduct.

He is represented by John Leader in Tucson.

Both the City of Tucson and the Pima County Attorney declined to comment Tuesday.

In October 2014, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall announced the creation of the Pima County Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, which is meant to "address claims of actual innocence, and also seek to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring."

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