I am not at all impressed with Barbara LaWall, frankly. Look at this, for example.
I don't know how to begin to help this guy - the AZ Justice Project apparently hasn't decided to pick up his case; I think he applied for their help. If you have any ideas or wish to spend some time helping Eddie get a reasonably fair shake, please drop Peggy Plews a note at firstname.lastname@example.org...
----now for the POST at HAND: Louis Taylor is about to be freed under a new plea agreement---
This guy was only sixteen when we locked him away for 28 life sentences 40 years ago - he's just now getting his day in court. This kind of thing happens far too often - thank God for the Arizona Justice Project, as well as the Arizona Daily Star for paying attention. We wouldn't need them so badly if our cops and prosecutors were more interested in justice and public safety than in convictions and private prisons in this state, and if they took responsibility for their mistakes a little more often...
March 31, 2013 7:45 PM
The following script is from "The Pioneer Hotel Fire" which aired on March 31, 2013. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. James Jacoby and Michael Karzis, producers.
60 Minutes Web Extra
The week before Christmas, back in 1970, an historic fire swept through an Arizona landmark, the Pioneer Hotel in downtown Tucson. Twenty-eight people were killed that night, some of whom were forced to jump to their deaths to avoid being burned alive in their rooms. It was front page news all over the country, and the following morning, a 16-year-old boy named Louis Taylor was charged with setting the fire and later convicted of 28 counts of murder.
The evidence was weak, and even the trial judge later admitted he would not have voted to convict. We first looked into the case back in 2002, along with Court TV, and found evidence that the 16-year-old had been railroaded; a convenient suspect for police and prosecutors eager to resolve the city's worst disaster. Taylor is still serving his life sentence, but new developments in fire science and new testimony from a key witness, may now change that and shed new light on a tragedy that's haunted Tucson for nearly 42 years.
Today, the Pioneer is a non-descript office building near the center of town. But behind the precast concrete slabs, you can still see the bones of the old hotel, built when Tucson was still a frontier outpost, and on December 19th 1970, it was still the heart of the city.
[Unidentified Man #1: Somebody's yelling, "Fire," over near the Pioneer Hotel.
Unidentified Man #2: Engine 1, 2, 3, Pioneer Hotel. Fire reported.]
When the first alarm sounded the hotel was packed with Christmas revelers. No one had noticed smoke on the upper floors. And by the time firemen arrived, it was already too late.
The Pioneer was a death trap: no sprinkler system, fire exits padlocked shut for security reasons, and the tallest ladder the fire department had reached only between the fourth and fifth floors.
Trapped hotel guests could be seen at the windows and on ledges. Some people tied sheets together and climbed to safety; others tossed mattresses out the window and died trying to land on them. As rescue teams fought their way up the stairwells, they encountered 16-year-old Louis Taylor on the third floor landing. Police officer Bill Briamonte put the boy to work.
Bill Briamonte: I said, "Come with me. There's a fire in this building. Start banging on doors," and I sent him to the left, and I went to the right.
To many fireman, Louis Taylor was a hero that night. But the police weren't looking for a hero. While the fire was still smoldering, and before the fire department even had time to begin an investigation into the cause, the police department decided it had the answer: Louis Taylor. One officer who had been with the boy during the fire, went up to thank him a few hours later at police headquarters only to be told to stay away - that Taylor had set the fire. The officer, Klaus Bergman, said he was dumbfounded.
Klaus Bergman: I don't know how in God's name somebody could declare a fire to be an arson, and arrest and book somebody for setting the fire before the fire is out.
Louis Taylor had voluntarily gone to police headquarters as a witness, but after an all-night interrogation by eight different police officers without a lawyer or a guardian present, Taylor had gone from cooperative witness to prime suspect.
David Smith: My conclusion was that Louis Taylor was evasive, and that he was involved in the incident.
Juvenile Detective David Smith was the last police officer to interrogate Louis Taylor. He said the boy was seen near the place where the fire started, had five partial packs of matches on him, and was unable to give a legitimate reason for being in the hotel. We interviewed Detective Smith back in 2002.
David Smith: I asked him, "Louis, did you set this fire?" And he said, "No, I didn't want to kill those people." Immediately there was a look of-- one of those looks of "I wished I hadn't have said that," or "I didn't mean to say that."
Steve Kroft: That doesn't sound like an admission.
David Smith: It certainly isn't a confession.
Smith says Taylor told him something else that would provide the prosecution with a motive for Taylor setting the fire.
David Smith: He said, "You know when you go into a hotel, and you take change of your pockets and your wallet, and you lay it on the dresser?" And he said, "That's why they set the fire, so that they could steal from the rooms when people would panic and run."
Steve Kroft: Did you know that Sergeant Gastaway, one of the officers who had questioned Louis Taylor before you, reported that at about 4:15, he went in and told Louis, "You set that fire so you could rob some of the guest rooms, didn't you?"
David Smith: No.
Steve Kroft: You didn't know that?
David Smith: No.
Steve Kroft: So you don't know if that's the first time that Louis Taylor ever heard that theory?
David Smith: No, I--I--I don't.
Not one word of Louis Taylor's interrogation was recorded, and if police officers took notes, they were never produced. Yet based on his inconsistent statements and circumstantial evidence -- and the since discredited testimony of two jailhouse snitches -- Taylor was charged with 28 counts of murder and convicted by an all-white jury, sentenced to life in prison. And that is where we found him a decade ago when we first began looking into this case with Court TV. He was 47 years old.
[Unidentified voice: Did you set that fire that night Louis?
Louis Taylor: No I did not. The evidence was so, you know, so frivolous that I thought for a while that maybe, you know, they'd maybe find me not guilty. But unfortunately I fell into the cracks.]
In a brief phone conversation, Taylor said he'd gone to the hotel hoping to hustle food and free drinks.
His mistake, he said, was trusting the police.
Louis Taylor: I guess they just--they had me, and they said, "Well, you know, just we'll try to get a conviction." So they did.
At the time we reported that important information that might have helped Louis Taylor was never heard by a jury and never investigated by the police: like this letter from the assistant fire chief, which acknowledged a number of suspicious fires at the Pioneer Hotel in the months leading up to the tragedy, along with the description of a suspect that did not match Louis Taylor. Detective Smith said he didn't know anything about it.
Steve Kroft: But you didn't turn up in your investigation the fact that there had been previous fires at this hotel?
David Smith: No.
Steve Kroft: And the fact that they had a description of somebody who had been setting these fires?
David Smith: No. I can guarantee you that if I knew that, then that's something I would have followed up on.
The description was much closer to a serial arsonist named Donald Anthony, who left the state the day after the Pioneer fire and was never questioned.
Steve Kroft: Did it ever dawn on you that perhaps that Mr. Anthony might have something to do with the Pioneer fire?
David: Don wasn't a suspect in the Pioneer. The fact is, that there was never any information of any type that was received indicating that anybody else but Louis Taylor was there acting suspiciously.
When our first story about Louis Taylor aired back in 2002, it attracted the attention of the Arizona Justice Project, a nonprofit legal organization that helps people it believes have been wrongfully convicted. The group took on the case and after a decade of work it has discovered some striking new evidence that could get Louis Taylor out of prison.
Steve Kroft: Do you think Louis Taylor set the Pioneer Hotel fire?
Ed Novak: No, I don't.
Steve Kroft: You think he was railroaded?
Ed Novak: Yes.
Edward Novak, a prominent Arizona attorney, is now leading Louis Taylor's defense team which is made up of volunteer lawyers, students and law professors from the Arizona Justice Project. They've dug into old court records and revisited the testimony of key witnesses like Cy Holmes, the original fire investigator, who testified that the fire had been intentionally set.
Steve Kroft: How important was that testimony at the trial?
Ed Novak: Critical, absolutely critical.
[Bailiff in Holmes deposition: Do you swear or affirm to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Cy Holmes: I do.
Bailiff in Holmes deposition: Thank you.]
Just five months ago, Novak conducted a sworn court deposition of Holmes and got him to reveal some startling new information. For the first time, Holmes said that he did a quick-walk through of the hotel 10 days after the blaze, then told the city council that he'd already reached some preliminary conclusions about the type of person who set the place on fire.
[Cy Holmes (Deposition): I had indicated that I felt that the culprit was probably black and that he was probably 18. ]
Steve Kroft: What was your reaction when he gave this testimony?
Ed Novak: I was trying to maintain my composure so that Holmes wouldn't know that he'd said something that really startled me.
Steve Kroft: How did he determine that it was a young man of color?
Ed Novak: I asked him that.
[Cy Holmes: 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.]
That new deposition has destroyed the credibility of a key witness against Louis Taylor. And, in fact, the very idea that the Pioneer Hotel Fire was even an arson is now under serious challenge, because the science of fire investigation has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. The Arizona Justice Project put together a panel of the country's top five fire experts and had them evaluate the evidence and the testimony in the Pioneer case records, using today's science.
John Lentini was one of them. He has conducted more than 2,000 fire investigations and has been at the center of the most important developments in fire investigations over the past 30 years. He took this case on for free.
Steve Kroft: What was the state of fire science 40 years ago?
John Lentini: Terrible. Particularly when it-- as it related to fire investigation.
Steve Kroft: What was your reaction when you looked at all the material?
John Lentini: Just another false accusation of arson. It's a shame. It has been very common for people to start with the proposition that the fire's set and if they can't find an innocent cause for it then they say, well, somebody must have set it. That presumes that we're good enough fire investigators to find the cause of every fire and that's simply not true.
Steve Kroft: What caused the Pioneer fire?
John Lentini: Undetermined.
Steve Kroft: Undetermined.
John Lentini: Undetermined. Could have been a cigarette. It could have been an overhead light.
Steve Kroft: Did you find any evidence of arson?
John Lentini: No.
Ed Novak: You can't have a murder conviction based on arson if there was no arson. Take away the arson, there's no murder.
Based on the new evidence and testimony, Ed Novak and the Arizona Justice Project petitioned the county prosecutor and the court to vacate Louis Taylor's murder conviction, release him from prison, and conduct a new trial.
The current prosecutor, Barbara LaWall, then commissioned the Tucson Fire Department to do its own reinvestigation of the Pioneer fire using the latest science. It, too, concluded that the cause of the fire should now be ruled undetermined.
Steve Kroft: So the report that she requested--
Ed Novak: Didn't back her up.
Steve Kroft: Not only didn't back her up, it solidified the defense's case?
Ed Novak: Yes.
Yet in spite of the fire department's report and the embarrassing testimony of the original fire investigator, the county prosecutor is holding her ground. She offered to release Louis Taylor from prison, but only if he would plead no contest to arson and murder charges.
Steve Kroft: Not much of a deal?
Ed Novak: It's not a deal. It stinks.
Steve Kroft: All to protect a conviction?
Ed Novak: Yes, exactly. I'm not sure I can do it.
Steve Kroft; What do you mean you're not sure you can do it?
Ed Novak: I'm not sure I can stand in the courtroom and let a prosecutor tell a judge that there's sufficient evidence for a judge to accept a plea of no contest when I don't think a crime occurred.
We asked an interview with County Prosecutor Barbara LaWall, but her office declined our request. So we decided to approach her on the street.
Steve Kroft: Ms. LaWall? Steve Kroft from "60 Minutes."
Barbara LaWall: How do you do Steve?
Steve Kroft: How you doing? I just have a couple of questions to ask you about the Louis Taylor case. What about this report from the Fire Department that you requested...
Barbara LaWall: Well you know --
Steve Kroft: That came back and said that there's no evidence that this fire was intentionally set?
Barbara LaWall: I don't believe that that's exactly what the report said --
Steve Kroft: No conclusive evidence.
Barbara LaWall: But they said it was undetermined, but you know, we have a hearing, this is a pending prosecution. And it's not the practice of this office to speak about pending prosecutions
Steve Kroft: But you've got somebody who's in prison for arson and murder and now it's not clear whether it was even an arson.
Barbara LaWall: Well nobody can say for sure whether it was or whether it wasn't.
Steve Kroft: The law says that if you're going to convict somebody of arson you have to have conclusive proof that it was in fact arson.
Barbara LaWall: Steve! We did, 42 years ago! 42 years ago, 12 members of this community made that determination. That's not what this legal issue is about right now.
We also asked the prosecutor about the controversial racial views of fire investigator Cy Holmes.
Steve Kroft: What about Cy Holmes? I've seen that deposition.
Barbara LaWall: Cy Holmes can make a determination as to whether or not it's arson or not arson.
Steve Kroft: He said some pretty embarrassing things.
Barbara LaWall: Yes, he did.
Ms. LaWall says the fate of Louis Taylor should be decided by the court. And she says just because the latest fire science finds the cause of the Pioneer fire to be undetermined, doesn't rule out the possibility of arson.
Ed Novak: And the last time I checked we don't convict people on a possibility. We convict people on proof beyond a reasonable doubt -- which you would never get in a retrial of this case.
It's now almost certain that the retrial will never happen. Louis Taylor, who is now 58 and has spent more than two-thirds of his life in prison, decided this past week to accept the prosecutor's deal.
On Tuesday, he is expected to plead no-contest to the charges in exchange for his freedom. Taylor told his lawyers that after maintaining his principles for 42 years, he is tired, uncertain of the appeal process, and wants to begin living the rest of his life as a free man. He still maintains his innocence.