Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Tale of Two Tragedies

d'Hedouville who lives in Washington, D.C., told Taylor the justice system worked, both in his conviction and eventual freedom.
Gimme a break.

December 19, 1970, Tucson, Arizona, a horrible fire swept through the Pioneer Hotel.  28 people died in the blaze, a 29th died from its effects some months later.  Louis Taylor, a 16-year-old black kid was in the hotel that night trying to sneak into the Hughes Aircraft Christmas party and cadge some free drinks.  When the fire started, he and a custodian tried to put it out.  When they couldn't, he helped some of the trapped and injured get out.  A few hours later, he was arrested.

It was, said Cy Holmes, the lead fire investigator, arson.  And, he said (amazing what you can figure out from the ashes), it was probably set by an 18-year-old black guy.

Trial lasted 7 weeks.  Taylor said he didn't do it. The jury said he did.  They found him guilty of murder.  28 times.

The jury may have been convinced. Not so the judge. From the Arizona Daily Star.
After saying he would not have convicted Taylor, Judge Charles L. Hardy publicly apologized for second-guessing the jury. "The jury had so much conflicting evidence that I just judged some of the evidence differently than they did," he told the Arizona Daily Star in March 1972.
Regardless, Hardy sentenced Taylor to life in prison.  28 times.*

That was then.  This is now.  Basically everything fire investigators once believed about fire (except that it burns) has proved to be, let me put this nicely, bullshit. See, what happened is that some scientists came along and instead of relying on assumptions and hand-me-down wisdom of the ages and well, gosh-it's-just-got-to-bes, they actually did stuff like conduct experiments.  And they found that all those assumptions and hand-me-downs and gotta bes were, as I said, bullshit.

We've been down this road before, most dramatically in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.  You remember, he's the guy who was executed for killing his kids in an arson fire that there's no actual evidence was arson even though the fire marshalls back then thought there was (though even then they should have known better).

Willingham is dead, though Rick Perry knew (at least he knew if he bothered reading the papers in front of him) that the evidence of arson was bullshit when he signed off on the killing.  Louis Taylor, though, is alive.  And as Yogi said, "It's déjà vu all over again."  The math is simple.  In 1970, it looked like arson (and apparently arson by an 18-year-old black kid).  In 2013, and really for some time now, there's simply no way of telling why the fire started.

Now, to dip into the arcana of law for just a moment, the Constitution requires that a person can be convicted of a crime only if every element of the offense is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  One element of murder is that someone did it, that the death wasn't just a result of chance accident caused by nobody.  But what science tells us is that there's no way to know whether that 18-year-old black kid - or anybody else - started the fire.  Which means, that as of today, there's no way Louis Taylor should have been convicted.  Judge Hardy (those of you old enough to remember Andy Hardy may recall that his father was a judge, though presumably not this one) should, it turns out, have gone with his second guessing of the jury.

It's now 42 years since Louis Taylor was sentenced to prison for life.  And he's out.  His lawyers from the Arizona Innocence Project filed a motion for new trial.  Yesterday, after first refusing a deal, Taylor entered pleas of No Contest to 28 counts of murder in front of Superior Court Judge Richard Fields.  Fields sentenced him to time served and said "Welcome Home."

So Taylor's now a free man.  Sort of.  He's still (or again, depending on how you want to look at it) convicted of 28 murders there's still no real evidence were actual murders.  But he's out.  Which is something.

Of course, the prosecutors still think he did it.  Don't need no stinkin' evidence.  They just know.  So does that fire investigator who just knew it was an 18-year-old black kid.
Holmes, now 83, told The Associated Press on Monday he still stands by his determination that the fire was arson. 
"There's no question about it," he said. He added that the new findings by Taylor's defense experts are based on incomplete information because a lot of the evidence was destroyed. "They didn't spend two full days digging through that place."
No, instead, they looked at how fire actually works.  At science.  At physics.  At, you know, stuff that isn't old wives tales.  Doesn't matter.  Oh, sure there's that thing about their being no stinkin' evidence.  But what does that matter?  From today's Daily Star.
At a news conference after Taylor's hearing, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall explained the decision to offer the plea agreement.
Earlier this year, Justice Project attorneys filed a motion for a new trial citing advancements in fire investigations, LaWall said. Had a judge granted the new trial, it would have been difficult for county prosecutors to get a conviction because witnesses have died and the physical evidence is missing.
Some of the evidence was destroyed, and some was given to attorneys involved in civil suits against the hotel and the company that manufactured carpeting for the Pioneer.
In addition, the defense team had experts in modern forensic fire science evaluate the case and agree to testify that they would not have ruled the blaze arson. Even an investigator with the Tucson Fire Department who reviewed the available evidence was not able to determine what caused the fire.
"We concluded that justice would best be served in light of unique facts of this particular case by allowing Louis Taylor to plead no contest at this time, whereupon the court then could affirm his guilt and then he would receive time served in this case of 42 years," LaWall said. "This is not an exoneration."
The Pima County Attorney's Office stands by the original conviction, that Taylor is responsible for the fire.
"We felt that the conviction was righteous, that it would be unfair for Mr. Taylor to simply walk away without that conviction, that it was important to have that conviction for the victims who survived and for the community to know that yes, the right person was convicted," Deputy Pima County Attorney Rick Unklesbay said.
So they let him plead to 28 counts of murder because they couldn't prove he was guilty. And he took the deal because you never really know what will happen, and he's now out of prison.  Which is no small thing.  As Taylor himself explained it in the prison parking lot when he was released,
It’s a tale of two tragedies, the Pioneer Hotel fire and my conviction.
Which brings me back to where I began.  There were, in the courtroom yesterday, family members of those who died at the Pioneer Hotel that December night in 1970.  Only one spoke.
“Mr. Taylor, I stand in front of you today to say I harbor no feeling of ill will or vengeance against you,” said Paul E. d'Hedouville II, the only person to speak at the hearing on behalf of the victims.
D'Hedouville was 4 years old when his father, an attorney, was killed in the fire. He told Taylor of events his father missed, like graduations and weddings and holidays. d'Hedouville who lives in Washington, D.C., told Taylor the justice system worked, both in his conviction and eventual freedom.
“Do as you choose Mr. Taylor, but choose wisely,” D'Hedouville said.
“Do not waste your new beginning at life.”
We've been down this road before.  

42 years in prison and now a new set of convictions for 28 murders that there's no evidence Taylor committed and that even the judge who tried the case didn't think the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt (which, in any system where words actually have meaning, would mean that the state didn't prove it back then and that Taylor should have been acquitted).   I'm sorry, that's not evidence the system worked twice. 

It's evidence the system fucked up horribly once and spent decades not acknowledging it.  And it's evidence that the system is still not working.  On the other hand, as I've said, Taylor is out, which is no small thing.

And I suppose it's a good thing that D'Hedouville harbors no ill will for Taylor and urges him to "choose wisely" and not waste his "new beginning at life."  At age 59.  As a twice convicted mass murderer.  Endless possibilities, I'm sure.

Here's another thing.  Louis Taylor and Todd Willingham aren't the only guys who were convicted of horrible crimes based on bullshit fire investigations.  And Taylor's not the only one who's still alive.  Lots of the others are out there - convicted felons, maybe convicted killers.  Some still in prison. Some on death row.  And nobody, almost nobody, sees a horrific injustice or gives a fuck.

After all, their convictions proved the system works.  And Taylor got out, which certainly proves that it works yet again.

Or not.

More at Preaching to the Choir  

*The 28 life sentences were to be served concurrently (Arizona Daily Star) or consecutively (NBC News).  Either way, he wasn't going anywhere.


  1. Steve croft of 60 minutes summed it up well this morning - he chose freedom over justice. It still amazes me - though I expect it - that a DA can say they aren't sure it's an arso but still take a plea.

    1. Sometimes, once in a while, they have the guts to acknowledge that they just fucked up. Sadly, it's not often.