Louis Taylor, who served 42 years for a deadly fire at a Tucson hotel, has been arrested in connection with an armed robbery.
He had entered prison as a teen and struggled to adjust after his release, his attorney says
When Louis Taylor’s conviction was overturned after four decades in prison for a deadly hotel fire, the Tucson man called the case a “tale of two tragedies.”
“The 29 souls — poor souls that lost their lives there — and my conviction,” he told reporters upon his 2013 release.
For Taylor, the tragedy would follow him into freedom.
The now-63-year-old would go on to live a life of hardship in Tucson, culminating in his arrest Thursday in connection with an armed robbery.
Larry Hammond, founder of the Arizona Justice Project and one of the attorneys who helped win Taylor’s release, said while many of those freed after a wrongful conviction go on to prosper, others struggle to adjust.
Hammond said Taylor lost most of his family while he was in prison and had little support other than his legal team after he was released.
Recently, Hammond said, Taylor has been homeless.
“I don’t know anything about the charge that was brought against him, but it’s certainly not the first time in our project where someone gets out and falls on hard times,” Hammond said. “It happens. But it doesn’t in any way, in my mind, diminish the facts (of the arson case).”
Tucson hotel robbed
According to Tucson police, a man in a black hat and red T-shirt last month entered the Riverpark Inn carrying a baseball bat, walked behind the counter and demanded money. The man took an undisclosed amount of cash and physically assaulted the clerk before leaving, Tucson Sgt. Pete Dugan said.
On July 5, police released photos of the robber on social media, asking for the public’s help in identification.
“We recently got forensic evidence back,” Dugan said. “Based on the video that we had and forensic evidence, they were able to link 63-year-old Louis Taylor to the robbery and kidnapping at the Riverpark Inn.”
A judge set his bond at $4,500, according to the Pima County Sheriff’s Office website. A jail representative said Taylor was released from custody Thursday evening.
The case isn’t Taylor’s first brush with the legal system since winning his freedom. Court records show charges of marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession from earlier this year.
29 deaths at Pioneer Hotel
Taylor was just 16 in December 1970, when a fire that began on the fourth floor of the Pioneer Hotel exploded into an inferno that killed 29 people.
Police turned their attention to the grade-school dropout after a hotel employee reported seeing a suspicious African-American youth at the hotel, according to a previous Arizona Republic report. Taylor couldn’t give a good reason for being at the hotel and had books of matches in his pocket.
Taylor has always maintained his innocence.
In 1972, a Phoenix jury found him guilty of 28 counts of murder. The 29th victim, a nurse, died of smoke inhalation months after the fire, but Taylor was never charged in her death.
Hammond said he was first introduced to Taylor in the mid-1990s. Taylor had been stabbed in prison by a member of the Mexican Mafia, and Hammond was asked to represent him in a civil-rights case.
The case ended in a settlement for an undisclosed amount of money. But the work inspired him to take a deeper look into the underlying charges and, when Hammond created the Justice Project in 1998, Taylor was one of the first inmates on his mind.
A team began taking a hard look at the case in the early 2000s. The science behind fire investigations had evolved in the intervening decades, and experts determined that the Pioneer Fire may not even have been arson.
“We wanted him to be exonerated,” Hammond said. “He had gone into prison when he was 16 for a crime that not only did he not commit, but probably for a crime (that) never occurred.”
Others, including Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, weren’t convinced.
“A fire was willfully and deliberately set, and Louis Taylor was the person who did that,” she said at a 2013 hearing. However, she conceded, there wasn’t enough remaining evidence to take the case to trial again.
So instead of an exoneration, Taylor settled on a surefire pass out of prison. He pleaded “no contest” to the 28 charges of murder in exchange for time served.
Taylor was not compensated after his time in prison. According to the Innocence Project, 32 states have statutes on compensating the wrongfully convicted, but Arizona isn’t one of them.
Hammond said Taylor’s only hope for compensation is through a civil-rights suit, which he has filed against Pima County and is still pending.
‘I often wonder what any of us would do’
Hammond keeps a picture of Taylor on his desk, reiterating that he and the legal team are about the only support system Taylor has left. He describes Taylor as a “sweet guy.”
“I try to think about him and other inmates like him who have been wrongfully convicted all the time,” he said.
“I often wonder what any of us would do, particularly convicted as an innocent child, without any education or job skills. For those people, this is particularly challenging.”
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