Taylor v. Powell, No. 20-4039 (10th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Von Lester Taylor and an accomplice, Edward Deli, murdered two unarmed women who tragically encountered them burglarizing a mountain cabin in December 1990. Taylor confessed to shooting the women; he never denied he fired the first shot in the brutal attack that lead to their deaths. Taylor pled guilty to two counts of first degree murder and was sentenced to death by a Utah jury. He challenged his convictions through a petition for federal habeas corpus, contending missteps by his trial counsel lead to a defective guilty plea. The Tenth Circuit determined Taylor failed to raise his ineffective-counsel claim in Utah state court, and this would have been a procedural bar to federal habeas relief. This notwithstanding, Taylor argued that despite re-affirming time and again he participated in the murders, he was “actually innocent” of them. Thus, he contended, the Tenth Circuit should consider his underlying claims. At the district court, Taylor presented new ballistics evidence that he alleged called into question whether he fired the fatal shots in the two murders. The court credited Taylor’s claim, set aside the convictions, and considered the merits of Taylor’s claims for habeas relief. In its review, the Tenth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s assessment of Taylor’s actual innocence claim. “To answer the question of whether he can be actually innocent of the crime: He cannot. Mr. Taylor ‘is not innocent, in any sense of the word.’” The district court’s grant of habeas relief was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.