Criminal Justice

Justices should consider when wrongfully convicted can seek damages, ABA says

  • Print.



The ABA is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case that “presents one of the increasing number of instances in which a prosecutor’s office has conditioned the release of an unlawfully convicted defendant on his agreement to a new plea—rather than vacating the prior conviction before bringing any new charges.”

In an amicus brief filed Monday, the ABA said the Supreme Court should grant Louis Taylor’s petition for certiorari to provide lower courts with more guidance on its 1994 ruling in Heck v. Humphrey, which essentially held an individual may not recover damages for any period of allegedly unconstitutional incarceration that is supported by a valid or unchallenged conviction or sentence.

The ABA also said the practice of requiring wrongfully convicted defendants to enter a new guilty, no-contest or Alford plea before they can be released is “at odds with several of the ABA’s prosecutorial standards, rules, and resolutions, and the ABA believes it undermines public faith in, and the very integrity of, our criminal justice system.”

Taylor, who is black, was 16 when he was accused of setting a fire in the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson, Arizona that killed 29 people in 1970. Even though he denied involvement in the fire, he was convicted of 28 counts of murder in Pima County and sentenced to life in prison.

According to the ABA’s brief, it was discovered four decades later that the prosecution suppressed an expert report finding that no accelerant had been used in the fire, which contradicted the theory behind Taylor’s conviction and the testimony of two primary witnesses who pointed to arson as the cause. An Arson Review Committee also found in 2006 that there was no scientific basis behind classifying the Pioneer Hotel fire as an arson.

Even though Pima County recognized it could not retry Taylor, it refused to vacate his conviction unless he pleaded “no contest” to his time served. He agreed to the condition and was released in 2013.

“Taylor, who had professed his innocence for four decades, felt he ‘had no choice’ but to agree: after forty-two years, the prospect of spending ‘another minute, another hour, another decade’ in prison was unbearable,” the ABA wrote in its brief.

Taylor filed a lawsuit against Pima County and the city of Tucson, alleging violations of his constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial. The district court held that the Supreme Court’s decision in Heck barred his recovery, and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

“Here, Taylor’s 1972 jury conviction has been vacated by the state court, so Heck poses no bar to a challenge to that conviction or the resulting sentence,” the 9th Circuit said in its opinion. “But Taylor’s 2013 conviction, following his plea of no contest, remains valid.”

That ABA said in its brief that the issue presented in this case—“whether a state or local jurisdiction may avoid paying civil damages by conditioning the release of a person whose conviction has been shown to be unlawful on a new plea and thus insulating themselves under a broad (and incorrect) reading of Heck—is of exceptional importance.

“It is critical to the integrity of our prosecutorial system that pleas be free from coercion, particularly where a defendant is incarcerated pursuant to a conviction that the prosecutor’s office itself acknowledges can no longer be sustained.”

The case is Louis Taylor v. County of Pima; City of Tucson. The ABA’s press release is here.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.