A few days before Christmas in 1970, a teenager named Louis Taylor was having a good time at a party at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson but quickly snapped into action when a fire broke out in the facility. The young man knocked on doors to alert guests of the situation and, when casualties started to mount, helped put injured people on stretchers. Twenty-eight people were killed that night. But as Steve Kroft recently reported on 60 Minutes, rumors started circulating that Taylor might have been the culprit behind the blaze, and he was arrested and convicted. He spent the next 42 years in prison and was released only a few weeks ago.
There is little evidence, however, that Taylor committed the crime. For one thing, several fires had broken out at the location previously and all had pointed to another suspect, but that information was never presented to the jury. Top fire experts, looking at the case today, say that it's not even clear that arson was the cause. Taylor confessed only after being questioned all night by eight different police officers and he did not have an attorney or guardian with him, suggesting, as Kroft puts it, that Taylor had been "railroaded." Far from there being enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, even the trial judge said later that he would not have voted to convict.
How, then, could Taylor have been wrongfully imprisoned? In the aftermath of what turned out to be the worst fire in Arizona's history, there was a strong and understandable desire to make sense of this tragedy, to find the guilty party, and to bring that person to justice. This desire, however, was not tempered with reason; other, less noble impulses played a role. The original fire investigator decided that Taylor was the one to blame because, as an African American, "...if they get mad at somebody, the first thing they do is use something they're comfortable with. Fire was one of them." The result was that a man who was probably innocent was denied something that can never be given back to him: more than four decades of freedom.
Two incidents this week prompt us to reflect upon the lessons from Taylor's story. The first is the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing hunt for the person or persons responsible for this reprehensible act. The second is the publication of Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel's op-ed in the New York Times, "Gitmo is Killing Me," which details the vicious treatment that Moqbel, who has not been convicted of or even charged with a crime, is receiving at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. He writes:
I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can't describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn't. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.
As someone who has had a nasogastric tube placed without anesthesia myself, I can personally attest to the excruciating distress this causes, and in my case, the device was inserted by a physician who was trying to help me get better. I can't even fathom what it must have been like in Moqbel's situation.