Seeking Justice

The Arizona Justice Project are a tenacious bunch, and some wrongfully accused or convicted are damn lucky they never give up

Perhaps the best image of Louis Taylor isn't the one from the newspapers of his youth, or even the more recent ones of him surrounded by his attorneys in court wearing prison orange or dressed in Friday business casual at an April 3, 2013 press conference the day after his release from prison after spending more than 42 years locked up for a crime it took science to explain away.

No, I am certain that if Taylor's mother and twin sister were still alive to see him free, they would find joy in watching him ride his bike in the parking lot of the Country Club Road condominium complex where he now lives. A smile spreads wide across his face as he speeds across the asphalt.

At the April press conference, Taylor smiled many times, but often hid his grin behind his hand because of the missing front teeth he said he couldn't wait to get fixed. In a way, it was an awkward home reunion where Taylor made it clear he wasn't exactly happy to be back in the city where he was convicted of setting the Pioneer Hotel ablaze in 1970 when he was only 16 years old and convicted by a jury of 28 counts of murder.

All along, from the police interrogations when he was just 16 to the entire time he was in prison, Taylor always, always declared his innocence.

"I said 'I'm not going nowhere. I'm an innocent man,'" Taylor said at the press conference, describing how he always turned down invites from other prisoners to join in on escapes. "Only the guilty run away. I held on and look, I'm free now."

For more than 10 years, a team of volunteer attorneys and law school students from the Arizona Justice Project took on Taylor's case—combing through old files and doing interviews that eventually led to enough new evidence to enable his attorneys to request a new hearing. Attorneys told reporters that much of the evidence had to do with science. If the Pioneer Hotel fire happened today, experts would have determined it was not arson.

There was also clear evidence that prosecutorial misconduct had taken place, such as the suppression of evidence that supported Taylor's innocence. Which only made it more difficult when Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall fought and maneuvered to prevent Taylor's case from going back to court, finally offering a plea agreement that didn't exonerate him from the crime but allowed him to go free based on time served.

"I don't know what I'm doing yet. I just have to take each day as it comes," he told reporters back then.

Taylor recently told the Tucson Weekly he still has to take each day as it comes—that hasn't changed, but his teeth are fixed now so he never has to hide his smile ever again.

At his condo complex off Country Club Road, Taylor is dressed in a short sleeved T-shirt, wearing shorts and sunglasses, and talking into a cell phone—new technology he'd never seen until the day after his release. He looks like a college student or really any Tucsonan ready to take on the warmer days.

Inside his condo, he recalls the press conference and the emotions expressed from pure jubilation to tears of anger and sadness.

"The thing is, ma'am, you have to tell it the way it is. You can't undercut it. You have to put a human picture on it," Taylor said.

Right now, Taylor said he's staying put in Tucson, not because he wants to be here but because he wants to do right by his boss Peggy Johnson, executive director of the Loft Cinema, where Taylor now works.

"I want to at least give it more than a month or so. Peggy's an amazing lady and the Loft is a good organization. I'm really grateful, but still," he said, "I don't like being here in Tucson and I think I have good reasons. Sometimes you have to bury the hatchet, but it doesn't mean the wounds will heal."

When asked if he still thinks about LaWall and her insistence that Taylor agree to a plea agreement rather than allow him a new trial or exonerate him based on new evidence, he said: "She's got to deal with her demons later ... I don't want to even discuss her. She's not anywhere in the equation of what I am trying to do right now."

But he does talk about his legal team with the Arizona Justice Project and friendships he has with Justice Project founder and Phoenix attorney Larry Hammond and retired UA College of Law professor Andy Silverman, who leads the Tucson component of the Justice Project with other volunteer attorneys and UA law school students.

At Taylor's April press conference, Silverman sat at the end talking about those first groups of law school students he took to the County Attorney's office to look through the case files more than 10 years ago.

"I think they did an amazing job." Taylor said about the Justice Project. "Look, I have no ill feelings against Barbara LaWall. I'm just going day to day and going forward. You know, that's all I can do. I've got an amazing bright future ahead of me and I have to stay focused."

Sitting with Andy Silverman in his office at the UA College of Law it becomes obvious that the people he's helped through his work at the Justice Project aren't forgotten. He mentions driving Taylor up to Phoenix when he had his appointment to get his teeth fixed, or calling in to check on how he's doing.

"When you work on these cases as long as we do, it isn't unusual that these people become more than clients. They become friends. I care about them," he said.

Betty Smithey is one such friend. Silverman began working on her case almost 40 years ago. After two governor clemency and court rejections to overturn her sentence, you'd think he would have eventually given up, shrugged his shoulders and forgotten about the almost 70-year-old woman in prison serving a life-sentence for killing a baby she was caring for in 1963.

But no, Smithey's case is another example of the cases the Arizona Justice Project takes on, often wrongful convictions or old-code lifers, whose life sentences usually came with an expectation of parole that was taken away as the Legislature got tougher on life sentences. The cases require a tenacious streak when you're poking a stick at injustice and the Arizona legal system.

More than 40 years ago, Silverman thought Smithey was wrongly put on trial and convicted despite her lack of mental competency at the time. Smithey, who grew up in orphanages and foster homes, faced years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. She was first sent to prison at the age of 16 for kidnapping a toddler who she voluntarily returned. She spent four years in prison, never received help. She killed the infant she was babysitting and was convicted at the age of 20. At the time of her release last year, Smithey had the record for being the longest-incarcerated female in the country.

"The first thing that we did on her case was dealing with an issue of her competency to stand trial. There was a real valid question from the beginning and it wasn't fully pursued," Silverman says.

When Silverman first started working on Smithey's case, it was as a volunteer attorney freshly out of law school during the early years of a special legal clinic started at the UA by a former professor of his. He continued to work on her case when he began volunteering with the Justice Project, a Phoenix-based organization started in 1998 by the Criminal Defense Association in Arizona, an effort led by Phoenix attorney Larry Hammond.

The first efforts of Silverman's—a post-conviction challenge brought before the courts—failed several times. Years had passed when he got a letter from Smithey asking how he was doing. He paid her a visit at the women's prison up in Florence, and decided it was time to look at her case again.

When the courts refused Silverman's attempts to reverse Smithey's conviction, he turned to the Arizona state Board of Executive Clemency, asking that she be made eligible for parole. The first time was when Fife Symington was governor. The board recommended parole, but Symington sat on Smithey's case for a year before finally issuing a denial.

Then Janet Napolitano became governor. Once again the clemency board made a recommendation that Smithey be eligible for parole. A Napolitano staffer, who happened to be a former student of Silverman's, heard him out. This plus a sitting Democratic governor provided some hope.

Napolitano denied Smithey's request.

When Napolitano left to become Secretary of Homeland Security for the Obama administration and Jan Brewer was appointed governor, he considered it another opportunity to go before the clemency board.

Typically past clemency boards sent a basic one-page letter with their recommendation. This time the clemency board sent a six-page impassioned letter to Brewer. To Silverman's surprise, it took a conservative, right-wing governor to make it happen. Brewer commuted Smithey's sentence from life to 48 years to life. The clemency board later voted 4-1 for an absolute discharge.

"We weren't real positive that even if we got to Brewer that she would accept; in some ways no governor had been granting clemencies. It didn't make a difference between Republicans and Democrats," Silverman said.

Silverman says Smithey is living up in Flagstaff now and had recently talked to her over the phone. He's trying to find a senior living facility for her so she can stay connected and keep busy.

"I'd like to see her in a better position," he said.

The Arizona Justice Project has a small staff in an office on the ASU campus, but most of the workers are volunteer attorneys and volunteer law students. Molly Kincaid, a recent UA law school graduate, was one of several students who worked with Silverman on the Smithey case, putting together the clemency packet, interviewing and contacting people who knew Smithey in and out of prison and even presenting the case before the board.

"I am really happy I was involved," Kincaid said. "Betty's case was an experience. I still can't believe she was the longest-held female inmate. The amazing thing about her is her personality. I don't think she had a lot of hope that her sentence was going to get commuted, yet she is a happy high-spirited person. I think that that is so amazing and says a lot of about human capacity."

Kincaid remembers Smithey saying "'I'm so lucky," several times while they worked with her on her case.

"Who says that after being incarcerated for 49 years and all those hard knocks in her life—it's kind of amazing," Kincaid said.

Equally amazing to the young lawyer is her former teacher Silverman.

"I have been his student for three years. He does so much, and he is completely humble about it. His heart is in the right place. He really cares about other people and does not like injustice," Kincaid said.

At the end of every immigration class she took with the retired professor, she said Silverman raised his fist in the air and told his students "Power to you all."

"It's really inspiring to hear a law professor say that," she said. "This legal system is really hard. Sometimes it's hard to have hope and believe in justice, but he really does and he's really trying hard to pass that along to his students."

Besides law school students, private criminal defense attorneys volunteer to work on Justice Project cases. Adam Bleier, of Sherick and Bleier, has worked on a few cases, one that is still pending that he's not yet able to discuss.

Bleier said he started law school at the UA just as the Justice Project began. He volunteered as a student, and knew that when he graduated he wanted to be able to volunteer as an attorney as soon as he was able.

"Now I volunteer because I love working with the students," he said.

It was Silverman, however, who reached out to him first, asking him to take a specific case and then another.

"We're all out there trying to make a dollar, but often, from a professional perspective, these cases are far more interesting and challenging than what you're working on normally," Bleier said.

"But I also like the idea that we have a Justice Project in Arizona that is dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions and cases of manifest injustice. I can't do too many things and work at the same time, so this is where I choose to focus my volunteer work."

Bleier worked on the Donna Bennett case in which the court overturned her murder conviction. Typically these cases are overturned because of DNA or other evidence that shows the person didn't commit murder, but in this case it was the application of the felony murder rule, he said.

Bennett was not home when her child was injured by her boyfriend in the 1990s. The injuries led to the child's death. The court sentenced her based on the fact that when she came home she failed to seek immediate medical attention for her child.

Bennett still serves time for a child abuse conviction, but because she didn't cause the death of her child and her attorney at the time never appealed "we felt this was a real claim," he said.

Although the state Supreme Court remanded the case back to trial, the Pima County Attorney's office dropped the sentence.

"She's been in prison 17 years and she'll be out in September," he said.

Bennett's was first tried in the mid-1990s and the Justice Project had the case four years before Bleier became involved.

"The process is painfully slow. There are long periods you're waiting or in preparation ... sometimes you're waiting for the court to decide."

When Louis Taylor sits down to talk about his release from prison that took place almost two months ago, he takes a stack of photos out of an envelope—many are of different Justice Project volunteers and staff he's gotten to know over the years.

But there's one person he points out time and time again and that's Phoenix attorney Larry Hammond, the Justice Project's founder and current board chair.

Hammond recalled that in those early years the project was run out of his office because the project had no money set aside for staff.

"There were nationally four other projects that were already in existence, including the Innocence Project," Hammond said.

"It's amazing to think of where we've been. Now we have excellent relationships with all three of the law schools, we have a permanent staff. We are always in need of money and we've never really gotten very good at fundraising, but we've had grants and we've been able to do a lot of good. I never really knew where the project was going to go or how it was going to develop, but I was involved in every step. It's been my personal passion."

Hammond, who has worked as a private criminal defense attorney since 1980, said the project works because they have a model in place in which all cases are screened. Usually inmates or family members contact the Justice Project directly. The screening process can be lengthy but is necessary before an attorney and students agree to take on the case.

"I know how hard this work is. The concept of finality is so deeply rooted in the criminal law system. Once someone has gone to trial or pled guilty getting a conviction set aside is always difficult and the process is slow and the odds are against success. Some people would say that's the way it should be," he said.

Look at the Taylor case, which the Justice Project started working on in 1999. Hammond said there is a change happening—an encouraging shift in public opinion.

"People don't really say that the justice system does not make mistakes because now we know that's not true," he said. "Now when we go into court if someone has been wrongfully convicted, because of the success of our project people have to say, 'I know it could happen.'"

The Taylor case to him speaks volumes about the work the Justice Project does and the people involved. The day Taylor was released from prison, Hammond said he was sitting behind him during the hearing and took a moment to survey the filled-to-capacity court room.

"It was completely jammed with people. I could see students who had worked on Louis' case from at least four different periods and early faculty even before Andy (Silverman) took over. Other lawyers who worked on the case. And I thought, 'My goodness, think about all the people whose lives have been affected by being a part of just this one case.' So many of them over the years dug through files, interviewed witnesses, talked to experts and filed petitions—for many of them I hope it was a good experience even though it took a long time. Not only has Louis' liberty been secured, but the efforts of so many people had been ratified. That makes it to me all worth the hard work."

Katie Puzauskas, who directs the project from the ASU campus, is a Howard Law School graduate who returned to Arizona specifically to work for the Justice Project.

"I was inspired by the work of the Innocence Project and when I found out there was a similar project in my home state, I knew I had to get involved," she said.

Since the Justice Project started, 15 people have been released, some based on innocence "and others dealt with what we believed to be a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Donna Bennett will be released this September. Donna will be the 10th person released in the past three years," Puzauskas said.

Puzauskas said the number doesn't include people whose sentences were commuted as a result of a case called McDonald v. Thomas handled by ASU professor Bob Bartels with the Justice Project.

Also one client represented by Bartels passed away months before his release on parole.

Since 1998, the Justice Project has received more than 4,200 requests for assistance and has represented 45 people.

"For the past four years, we have received approximately 300 requests for help per year. Generally, the Project has approximately 50 active cases at any given time—either being investigated, in court proceedings, or before the clemency board," she said.

"It is challenging work, but I don't know any other group of attorneys who will do it."

Perhaps it's Taylor who sums it up best about his attorneys.

"I had the best," he said. "It was simple. There was a miscarriage of justice. I paid the price, but then someone cared enough to think it was worth fighting. That's the Arizona Justice Project."

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