The case against Louis Taylor was filled with problems. A team of lawyers proved it. The Pima County Attorney's office knew it. And still, in freeing the man convicted of Tucson's 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire, which killed 29 people, the best Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall could do for him was a slimy no-contest deal. It got Taylor out of prison right away in exchange for the equivalent of a guilty plea, when he's maintained his innocence all along.
I can't blame Taylor for taking the deal, flawed as it was. Fighting for total exoneration would've taken at least a couple more years. Worse, Taylor's defense lawyer says the County Attorney's office vowed to fight it all the way. After 43 years behind bars on flimsy evidence, he didn't deserve to spend another day incarcerated. But what's puzzling is why the Pima County Attorney's office feels such a strong need to cover for a prosecution team that isn't around anymore. Furthermore, the lead fire investigator on the case is standing by his investigation, never mind that arson CSI has come a long way in four decades.
"We cannot forget the victims," LaWall said. "This was not an exoneration."
She was right on that one, but not like she meant. We're still left with the stench of a flawed investigation, likely tainted by racism. It took two stories on "60 Minutes" before prosecutors decided they needed to do some damage control. Note that Taylor got out only two days after the news magazine blew the whistle again. If Taylor isn't exonerated in LaWall's view, neither are those who handled the original case in 1970. Yes, we cannot forget the victims. But the victims, if they were somehow able to speak to us, would tell us to convict the right person, not the most convenient one.
As a bonus for the prosecutor's office, the deal limits Taylor's ability to sue the county for wrongful imprisonment. It's troubling that a roomful of lawyers couldn't work out a plan to fairly compensate him for the time he can't get back. Watching Taylor speak, I don't see it in his nature to take Pima County taxpayers for every last dime. He just wants to get on with the rest of his life. But he's going to need help putting that life back together, and yes, that means paying him some money.
Taylor says the Pima County Attorney's office could have done the honorable thing. Instead, it did the easy thing. The CA's handling of the case reminds me of why people make crude jokes about lawyers. Fortunately, knowing the nature of Tucsonans, they are more than willing to apologize for the misdeeds of public officials who act in their name. I'm sure they'll help Louis Taylor begin a new chapter of his life.