I was disappointed in Pima County District Attorney Barbara LaWall’s lack of interest in righting a more than 40-year wrong recently.
Despite an abundance of information pointing to authorities nabbing the wrong suspect in the horrific 1970 Pioneer Fire in Tucson, she still made Louis Taylor plead no contest to the 28 counts of murder he has been serving a prison term for. He had to plead no contest before he could be released from prison. Not wanting to fight anymore, wanting his freedom, he complied with LaWall’s requirements.
This is an injustice. Taylor, then 16, lost 43 years of his life after authorities on that night in 1970 arrested him for the fire that had not even been put out yet. They said he had matches, had no reason to be there and without a thorough investigation, authorities automatically assumed they had their man.
However, now forensic experts say they can no longer determine whether someone set the hotel fire where 29 people died. Now, you have testimony from the lead investigator saying that he just knew it was a black teenage male that set the fire. Now, you have so-called witnesses inside the jail that night saying they were coerced into saying Taylor had confessed.
Yet, with all of this new information, with 10 years of work from the Arizona Justice Project to show Taylor is innocent, it wasn’t enough for LaWall, an elected official, to right the wrong.
It’s not as if LaWall made the mistake 43 years ago. Were her actions recently merely to avoid some major lawsuit? It just wasn’t clear why this elected official sworn to uphold justice could not do the right thing and take the steps necessary to drop these charges and free this man without requiring him to plead no contest, which is a ploy to still make it where he isn’t said to be innocent.
Here’s the thing, what if he did actually set the fire? The problem is our justice system failed him 43 years ago. He was questioned and held without a lawyer present, with him being 16, his parents were not called, an all-white jury convicted him, the lead investigator was automatically looking for a black man and coerced testimony from convicts who supposedly heard him confess.
The trial was unfair, and therefore a conviction cannot be taken seriously.
The CBS investigative magazine “60 Minutes” also looked into the issue. They had interviews of officials from the 1970s saying that how Taylor was treated was not right.
They had footage of the fire’s lead investigator saying he knew it was a black man that set the fire because they liked to set fires.
While LaWall declined a “60 Minutes” interview, the popular show still caught up with her walking downtown. In the short on-air appearance, LaWall didn’t seem bothered by the fact that she is still not letting this man go after so many years, she seemed unchanged by the racist comments made by the lead investigator, and despite all the mounting evidence to the contrary, believed she was doing Taylor some kind of favor.
I applaud the Arizona Justice Project, a non-profit that reviews cases they feel don’t live up to just legal standards, for their action and persistence in this case.
As for LaWall, there is no applause, just regret that I checked her name on the election ballot. LaWall had the chance to look like the good guy, to be the one to right a wrong, but instead she chose to hide behind a frivolous argument that makes her no better than those who jumped to conclusions 43 years ago.