April 22, 2013
Attorney Edward Novak, a Knox College graduate, led the Arizona legal team that recently won freedom for a man who, despite his steadfast claims of innocence, was convicted of arson and imprisoned more than 40 years ago.
Taylor was released from prison on April 2. He had been behind bars in connection with a December 1970 hotel fire in Tucson, Arizona, that killed 29 people.
Taylor, 16 at the time, had been hanging around at the hotel, though he wasn't a guest or an employee. The fire was classified as arson, and Taylor came under suspicion. He continued to insist he had nothing to do with the blaze, but nonetheless he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Years later, Taylor's case attracted the attention of the Arizona Justice Project, a nonprofit group that works to overturn and prevent wrongful convictions.
One of the founders of the Justice Project called Novak three years ago and asked him to take the lead on the Taylor case. Novak leads the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Polsinelli PC as office managing partner, and he has extensive experience in criminal defense and complex litigation.
Initially, Novak declined because of the demands of another case. But a settlement was reached in that case in mid-2011, clearing the way for Novak to offer his services on Taylor's behalf.
"I wanted to help set this record straight," said Novak, a 1969 Knox graduate who majored in political science.
By the time Novak joined the Taylor case, the Justice Project already had a report from arson experts who said the hotel fire couldn't be proven to be arson and was instead "of an undetermined nature." Their report reflected the advancements that have been made in fire science since 1970.
Novak said the report, combined with the fact that the 16-year-old Taylor had undergone a lengthy police interrogation without a lawyer, without his parents, and without confessing, indicated to him that the fire probably wasn't arson. And that, in turn, meant his client probably wasn't guilty.
Novak and his Justice Project legal team reviewed old records in the case, and Novak conducted crucial court depositions. One of those depositions involved the original investigator of the fire, who had determined the blaze was arson in 1970 and who still stuck to that position. In answering Novak's questions about the original examination of the fire, the investigator exposed his own racial bias and seriously damaged his credibility.
After that, prosecutors in the case said they wouldn't simply dismiss the charges against Taylor, but they offered to free him if he pleaded "no contest" -- a move that means his conviction still stands.
Taylor could have continued to seek exoneration, Novak said, but he likely would have had to do it from behind bars. Novak recalled what Taylor told him: "I don't want to spend another three or four years in prison and still not have satisfied everyone out there that I didn't set this fire. I'd rather be free and be satisfied in my own head that I've maintained my innocence and obtained my freedom."
Novak and his Justice Project colleagues are continuing to work with Taylor, focusing on his re-integration into society and helping him find permanent housing and a job. While in prison, Taylor earned his high school equivalency, took college courses, and worked as a medical technician.
Novak says his Knox College experience played a role in the Taylor case.
"I grew up in Berwyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. All white," he said. "I didn't really know any non-white people until I got to Knox."
"So for me, Knox was an opportunity to learn about other races, other nationalities, other religions," he added. "And it was that experience that also came to bear in this case because Louis is black -- half-black and half-Mexican, as he corrects me."
The night of the hotel fire, a witness had pointed out Taylor because he was the only black person there, Novak said, adding that suspecting someone just because of race "was counter to what I learned at Knox."
Novak said that while he was a Knox student, College faculty members helped prepare him for a legal career. He singled out Rene Ballard, a former Knox political science professor who taught constitutional law, and Robert Seibert, who is Robert W. Murphy Professor of Political Science.
Seibert, according to Novak, was "constantly challenging, questioning, forcing me to support my position, justify my position -- which is what I do every day now."