One would be hard pressed to meet an old-timer in Tucson who believes that Louis Taylor was guilty of setting the 1970 Pioneer Hotel Fire. One friend of mine who was raised in Barrio Viejo and knew Taylor growing up described him as a guy who would stick up for neighborhood kids who were getting bullied. He was hardly a model citizen, however. My friend, who later shared a cell with him at Florence, also told me about how he and Taylor used to shoplift from Woolworth’s and steal sneakers from another Downtown store. Likewise, Taylor was hanging out at the Hotel that night in the hope of sneaking away with some dessert or liquor from a Christmas party. None of this, of course, speaks to a pathology which would lead one to set a fire that killed twenty nine people.
Tucson was a different place back then. Though the legendary Tom Price was leading a small band of reformers in the bureaucracy who were out to modernize city government, an old boy network was still in control and hostile to change. This was a city where building codes were often ignored and the fire department was ill-equipped to handle a blaze in an 11-story building. The same local leadership also wanted to find someone to blame for what happened, and a black kid from Connie Chambers, even one who helped rescue people that night, was a convenient scapegoat.
The Old Pueblo has largely changed for the better since then. Unfortunately, some things remain the same.
Today, comes the news that Taylor is to be set free after forty two years in prison. Doubts have been expressed by people involved in this case from the very beginning, but it took over ten years of work by the Arizona Justice Project, Barry Scheck, and former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman to get this result, largely because of the lack of cooperation and occasional stonewalling by the prosecutors. One wonders, at this point, why they would even bother.
This story provides a window into the special pathology of the insular decades-old political machine which is called the Pima County Attorney’s office. The insistence, for example, that “victims” be consulted on any deal in a case that dates to the Nixon Administration is not only absurd, but speaks to the same disturbing attitude that got Taylor arrested in the first place, namely that something bad happened, so someone, anyone, has to pay for it. Barbara LaWall’s own embarrassing performance on 60 Minutes, wherein she seemed unclear on the concept of reasonable doubt, she was unwilling to admit that her office or her predecessors might have gotten something horribly wrong, even in the face of questions about whether the fire was an arson at all.
There may be a good reason for this. It could be argued that they are simply looking out for the Pima County taxpayer in case Taylor decides to sue for the fact that we basically ruined his whole life. If this were true, then it would have been best to simply say nothing rather than sticking to a story which was discredited years ago. This is an office which has always been far more concerned about winning than justice. LaWall’s attitude in this case makes one wonder how many other Louis Taylors are stewing in prison because of her inability to admit that sometimes the wrong guy gets accused.
This community owes Taylor an apology, at the very least, and that includes LaWall along with the rest of us.