Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Louis Taylor, not quite free at last

Oh, isn't this so lovely? This kind-hearted judge telling this poor man who has had 42 years of his life stolen from him, "Welcome back." As if this judge is so thrilled to be over-seeing the release of this wrongly-convicted man. He gets to be so magnanimous as he ushers this man back to life, to freedom. Oh, he's such a nice, good  judge.

As he's presiding over this giant sham of a proceeding where the wrongly-convicted man who lost 42 years of his life (which is basically his entire life as he was 16 at the time of the incident) has to enter into a no contest plea to secure his release from prison. Because this way, he can't get any money for all those years of wrongful imprisonment. He can't sue his lawyers or the cops for any civil rights violations. And he'll still be a convicted felon. But after having been sentenced to prison on 28 counts of murder, what man wouldn't take that evil deal just to get the heck out of there?

Louis Taylor was convicted of 28 counts of murder after a horrific fire ripped through the Pioneer Hotel in Tuscon, Arizona back in 1970. At the time, Taylor was 16 years old. He was at the hotel that night, apparently trying to score free food and drinks. Then he helped try to get people out of the hotel after the fire broke out.

Somehow, though, within hours, he was accused of setting the fire. He was interrogated without a lawyer. The lead fire investigator decided that his suspect was probably black, based on his years of experience as an arson investigator. I guess I missed the day in criminal profiling class when we learned that hotel fires are most likely set by teenage black boys. Luckily for Louis Taylor, this investigator didn't. That investigator was also confident, is to this day confident, that the fire was arson, intentionally set (by someone who was most likely around 18 and black, of course). So Louis Taylor was convicted and sentenced to 28 consecutive life sentences, which he has been serving since 1970.

Just one thing, though. Fire science back in 1970, well, it sucked. What fire experts now understand about fires makes fire investigators from the '70s look like idiots. All of the things fire investigators used to see as "hallmark signs" of arson just flat aren't. You will not now find one single modern fire expert who will declare the Pioneer Hotel fire arson. Instead, they will tell you the cause of the fire is undetermined. It's the same thing as the  Cameron Todd Willingham case out of Texas. We've come to realize we've convicted someone (in Willingham's case, executed him) for something we can't even know was a crime.

Fortunately, Louis Taylor got a better outcome than Willingham as he gets to sleep somewhere other than a cell tonight. But to get there, he was put in the awful position of having to accept a conviction for something he didn't do. It's a pretty good bet that the prosecutors and the judge involved are pretty darn convinced he didn't do it since they're agreeing to let him out of his 28 consecutive life sentences. They didn't have to do that. They could have fought, knowing that Taylor has undoubtedly long since exhausted all his available appeals.

Which is why I'm having a hard time swallowing that oh so jovial "Welcome back" from the judge who as he is accepting Taylor's no contest plea. There's nothing to celebrate about coercing an innocent man to accept a guilty finding to secure the freedom that should always have rightly been his. You don't get to act the part of the benevolent liberator when you're insisting on terms that will deny the liberated man any financial restitution the state owes him. Did you even make sure this man had a place to go before you sent him out into the world still stuck with a criminal record and no promise of help from the state trying to build any kind of life? He's now almost 60 and has been away from the real world for over 4 decades. He can't have many friends or job prospects. Who knows if he even has any family to fall back on. But, yeah, pat yourselves on the back for being so unbelievably generous as to let him out as long as he gives you this one last bit of himself 'cause you hadn't gotten quite enough with those 42 years.

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