A Presumption of Guilt


After serving 42 years in an Arizona prison for a crime he didn't commit, a 58-year-old man was finally released this April. When Louis Taylor was just 16, he ventured out of his comfort zone to try a happy hour advertised by an upscale Tucson hotel, a typical foray for an adventurous teenage boy. Unfortunately, that night a fire broke out that ultimately claimed 29 lives. In that moment, Taylor stopped being typical and became extraordinary. He did not run from the danger as most people would. Instead he took responsibility. He was spotted during the crisis busily helping people escape the flames, escorting guests to safety and assisting people on stretchers.

Ordinarily, he would have been hailed a teenage hero for demonstrating a civic duty only expected of grown men. Yet eyewitness accounts of his beyond-the-call-of-duty service were not credited as outstanding demonstrations of good character. To police and even some bystanders his very presence made him automatically suspect. More than the possibility that he could have saved someone's life, people were consumed by their sense that he "did not belong in a fancy Tucson hotel."

The forensic evidence suggested faulty electrical wiring or some building defect as the likely cause, not arson, but scientific facts could not derail a hard-wired determination that because Taylor was Black, he had to be at fault. His youth, his innocence, and even his dramatic work to save and comfort the victims were imperceptible and irrelevant.

Outraged citizens wanted the death penalty. A profiler was brought in who swore under oath that the likely perpetrator was "a black teenager." Taylor was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to multiple life sentences, ensuring he would die in prison. Fortunately, the Arizona Justice Project recently took up the case. New research from the National Academy of Science proved there was no evidence of arson in the fire. Wrongly convicted, Taylor was finally released-42 years later.

For nearly 50 years, starting in the 1920s, the population of U.S. prisons was around 200,000. Today we have the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people in jails or prison. One out of three black boys born in 2001 is likely to serve time in jail or prison during his lifetime. Half of our incarcerated are imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. While African American and Latino teens are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than whites, they are three to four times more likely to be arrested, convicted or sent to jail or prison for non-violent drug offenses.

The presumption of guilt follows too many poor and minority children to school, a place where children should be nurtured and supported, not criminalized and incarcerated. Yet the pipeline from school to jail is so insidious, many parents now fear schools as much as they fear the criminal justice system.

Children as young as five years old are being led out of classrooms in handcuffs for acting out or throwing temper tantrums. They have been arrested for throwing an eraser at a teacher, breaking a pencil, and having rap lyrics in a locker. Black children constitute 18 percent of the nation's public school population but 40 percent of the children who are suspended or expelled.

In Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and a growing number of states, legally sanctioned racial profiling has been resurrected leading Latinos particularly, and other U.S citizens of color, to fear harassment, suspicion and detention.

In New York City between 2002 to 2011, 90 percent of those who are stopped and frisked are Black or Latino. In 88 percent of those stops, people of color were found to be innocent of any wrongdoing.

Despite progress, in the last 50 years we have retreated from an honest conversation about racial and economic justice, and have opted instead for mass criminalization and incarceration leaving many poor and minority people marginalized and condemned. As Taylor's story reminds us, out of sight is hardly out of mind. It is an abysmal violation of human dignity.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Bryan Stevenson is executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a professor of law at New York University.

This article is the fifteenth of a 20-part series written in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

For more information, please visit www.lawyerscommittee.org

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A Presumption of Guilt

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