Arizona Justice Project lawyers excoriated Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall for what they said is her unwillingness to acknowledge the mistakes of her predecessors in connection with a 1972 trial that sent a 17-year-old to prison for 42 years.
The lawyers and one retired Arizona Supreme Court justice went so far as to question the integrity of the County Attorney's Office at a Wednesday news conference.
"What we're all a little bit disturbed about is, the county attorney insists that Louis isn't innocent. We believe he is innocent. … Anyone who is afraid to admit Louis Taylor is innocent reflects more on themselves than on Louis," Tucson attorney Michael Piccarreta said Wednesday.
His comments were made in reference to Justice Project client, Louis Cuen Taylor, 59, who was found guilty in 1972 on 28 counts of murder stemming from the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire in downtown Tucson.
He and Taylor were joined at the news conference by several other notable Arizona attorneys all expressing their dismay over the resistance they encountered from the County Attorney's Office while working to secure Taylor's release.
Taylor pleaded no contest at a hearing Tuesday as part of an agreement that set aside his original conviction and gave him credit for time already served. However, Taylor struggled with the decision to plead no contest.
"He initially rejected it," Justice Project Executive Co-director Katie Puzauskas said before the hearing.
Taylor had always maintained his innocence even though admitting culpability and showing remorse could have won him parole decades ago. It was the death, several weeks ago, of a young inmate that changed Taylor's mind.
"I stayed up all night thinking about that guy," Taylor said. "He was 23 years old. He was going home in two months. It rattled me."
Though he is free, Taylor still thinks LaWall should "do the moral thing" and exonerate him.
When Justice Project attorneys met with LaWall to broker the plea deal, "she said the prosecution was appalling," Phoenix lawyer Noel Fidel said. "That was a private comment to us, and we were waiting for her to acknowledge that in public. All of this warranted a vindication, and instead a deal was offered."
LaWall said she does not remember making that comment to Fidel, but agrees that the courtroom behavior of the county attorney who prosecuted Taylor, Horton C. Weiss, now-deceased, would not be tolerated today. During the trial, Weiss was constantly interrupting the defense attorney and made more than 2,000 objections during the seven weeks of testimony.
"There were issues with the prosecution of the case, but the evidence still stands, and I'm not going to second-guess the jury's deliberations," LaWall said.
Last October, attorneys with the Justice Project filed a motion for post-conviction relief, asking that the case be dismissed or set for an evidentiary hearing based on new findings using modern forensic fire science. Several defense experts were prepared to testify that they would not have ruled the blaze an arson, and an investigator with the Tucson Fire Department reviewed the available evidence in the case and was not able to determine what caused the blaze.
The defense team also alleged the prosecutor engaged in misconduct by withholding evidence, speaking with the judge without the defense attorney present and being privy to the mind-set of jury members through conversations his case investigator had with some jurors during the trial.
"We knew we'd win, but it was a question of when," Piccarreta said. "There are procedural technicalities the county attorney could throw up to delay that process."
LaWall agrees that the length of time since the original trial - during which witnesses have died and evidence that has been destroyed or gone missing - would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to launch another successful prosecution of Taylor. However, her willingness to offer him a plea was not an indication of his innocence. She also denies that the plea was offered as a way to prevent Taylor from suing the county.
"We did not take into consideration whether or not he might have a civil suit," she said. "Our determination on this was, there were 28 people who died and a jury found him guilty and we wanted to maintain the integrity of that conviction. That was what was most important to us. I don't believe Louis Taylor is innocent. There was nothing presented to us to show us that he should be exonerated."
Deputy Pima County Attorney Rick Unklesbay concurred in an email.
"I think the bottom line is that we simply disagreed with the defense attorneys about the state of the evidence. We have, in the past, dismissed cases or refused to indict cases where we felt there was significant doubt about the defendant's culpability or a violation of constitutional rights. We did not feel that was the case here. There was significant evidence of Mr. Taylor's guilt presented. The new arson reviews did not exonerate Mr. Taylor. Unlike DNA that can and has been used to clear someone from criminal culpability, the review here, 40 years in hindsight, stated they could only call it undetermined at this point in time. That doesn't make Mr. Taylor innocent: It simply says with new techniques and the inability to see the scene firsthand they couldn't tell. That's a big difference."
Retired Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman, also a Justice Project supporter, said, however, the county's decision to offer a plea versus clearing Taylor of wrongdoing calls into question the integrity of the office in 1972 and today.
"This case is unique. This wasn't bad science. This was no science. I have never seen a case where someone got convicted on so little evidence," Feldman said. "There was no integrity in this situation. The (original) prosecutor and the police officers withheld evidence and lied about evidence. That's not just bad prosecution. That's a lack of integrity.
"The integrity of the system and the survival of our system … means willingness to confess the errors of the past and avoid them in the future. The integrity of the system depends on coming clean. That's what needs to be said here. It's not. I think the current office has an obligation to correct the injustices of the past."
LaWall called statements about the integrity of her office "outrageous."
Note: Reporter Kimberly Matas has been researching the Pioneer Hotel story for several years as part of an independent book project. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4191.