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Posted Apr 2, 2013, 11:19 pm
The man convicted of starting the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire that killed 29 people walked free Tuesday after spending 42 years in prison.
With legal advocates raising questions about the case against him, 59-year-old Louis Taylor accepted an agreement with prosecutors in which he pleaded no contest to 28 counts of felony murder and received credit for time served.
“Mr. Taylor does maintain his innocence, and the no-contest plea allows him to do so,” defense attorney Edward Novak told Superior Court Judge Richard S. Fields during Tuesday’s hearing.
Taylor was 16 when a jury convicted him of 28 counts of felony murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Twenty-eight people died as fire swept through the 11-story downtown hotel late at night, and another person died of injuries months later.
Attorneys volunteering with the Arizona Justice Project worked on the case for more than a decade, arguing that racism – Taylor is black – and pressure to convict someone following the fire contributed to his prosecution. The CBS news program “60 Minutes” brought national attention to Taylor’s case in 2002.
The “60 Minutes” account said rescue crews ran into Taylor and asked him to help bang on doors to warn guests about the fire. He did so and agreed to go to the police station as a witness. However, he became a suspect when officers reported finding five books of matches on him.
Rick Unklesbay, chief trial deputy with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, said that Taylor also told investigators and hotel staff that he saw people start the fire. Later, Taylor admitted that those stories were lies, Unklesbay said.
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Several months ago, defense attorneys put forth a motion for a new trial, citing advances in fire science, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said.
LaWall’s office asked the Tucson Fire Department to re-examine the arson case, and the department concluded that based on the evidence available today the cause of the fire couldn’t be determined.
LaWall said the department’s conclusion might have prompted a judge to call for a new trial.
“If that were the case, we would find it extraordinarily difficult to re-convict because witnesses have died, they’re deceased, much of the evidence has been destroyed and is no longer available so we had to do that balancing test,” she said.
LaWall said the agreement doesn’t exonerate Taylor.
“Louis Taylor was found guilty by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and … we assert that the evidence that was presented to them at that time was more than sufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.
Some family members of the victims attended the hearing, including Paul d’Hedouville II of Maryland, who was 4 when his father died in the fire. At a news conference after the hearing, d’Hedouville said that he believed that the evidence against Taylor was overwhelming.
Testifying at the hearing, d’Hedouville told Taylor that he has the opportunity to start his life over, an opportunity that the 29 people killed will never have.
“Do as you choose, Mr. Taylor,” d’Hedouville said. “But choose wisely.”