A man serves 42 years in an Arizona prison, only to be released after potential exculpatory evidence surfaces that includes prosecutorial misconduct. Faced with a choice of entering a new plea to get out of jail quickly or contesting his conviction in what could be a lengthy process, he pleads “no contest,” is resentenced to time served and released from prison.
Should he be eligible to recover monetary damages for a wrongful conviction? A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a 1994 case, said his plea of “no contest” barred him from seeking damages.
The American Bar Association disagrees. On Jan. 13, the ABA filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the justices to review the 9th Circuit’s decision to bar the man, Louis Taylor, from seeking damages for wrongful incarceration under federal civil rights law.
The ABA brief said the 9th Circuit and other lower courts have misinterpreted the 1994 ruling and asked the justices to accept the case “to review the legal effect” of its prior ruling. The decision in Heck v. Humphrey effectively said a person cannot claim damages for an allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment without showing that the conviction or sentence has been overturned or expunged.
Taylor’s 1972 conviction stemmed from a Tucson hotel fire two years earlier that took the lives of 28 persons when he was 16 years old. Years later, attorneys with the Arizona Justice Project contested his conviction, arguing that jury tampering, evidence tampering and racism played a role in the all-white jury’s conviction of Taylor, who is black. They also raised questions of whether arson caused the fire.
The ABA brief points out the issue has repercussions far beyond Taylor’s case. It cites data from the National Registry of Exonerations that lists 2,522 exonerations since 1989, amounting to more than 22,315 years of wrongful imprisonment with roughly two-thirds of it served by people of color.
The brief also noted that increasingly the “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.”
“Unfortunately, when local jurisdictions confront cases in which fiscal and ethical considerations go head to head, fiscal considerations sometimes prevail,” the ABA brief said.
- U.S. Supreme Court, Heck v. Humphrey, (1994)
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Louis Taylor v. County of Pima, City of Tucson (2019)
- The National Registry of Exonerations
- Tucson Sentinal.com, “Court: Louis Taylor cannot collect for 42 years behind bars in Pioneer fire case,” Jan. 19, 2019
- The New York Times, “Wrongly Convicted, They Had to Choose: Freedom or Restitution,” (Sept. 30, 2019)
- ABA Journal stories: “Some states now require all attorneys to report wrongful convictions,” Sept. 1, 2017.