Man convicted in 1970 Pioneer fire to be set free after 42 years
Louis Taylor, convicted for setting the 1970 fire at the Pioneer Hotel that killed 29, will be set free Tuesday after 42 years behind bars. Although Taylor has always maintained his innocence and his original trial was tainted by questions of racism that sparked a push for a new trial, he will be found guilty and sentenced to the years he has already served.
Taylor, now 59, was 16 when a fire tore through the hotel in the early morning hours of Dec. 20, 1970. The fire began on the fourth floor; Fire Department ladders could not reach the upper floors of the 11-story hotel, which was crowded with Christmas revelers and visitors from Mexico.
The hotel was heralded as fireproof when it was constructed in 1929, but lacked a sprinkler system and had open stairwells. Some of the 29 victims jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. Most died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The fire remains the most deadly in Tucson's history.
Although Taylor, who was hanging around the holiday party, helped fight the fire with a janitor and assisted some hotel guests from their rooms, he was taken into custody just hours later.
An African American, Taylor was convicted of 28 counts of murder by an all-white jury in 1972. One of the victims died of injuries after the fire.
Taylor was sentenced to life in prison, which he entered on March 30, 1972.
The judge in 1972 trial expressed doubts about Taylor's guilt, and later tried to have his sentence commuted. But Taylor refused to admit guilt, making that course impossible.
The Arizona Justice Project took up Taylor's case about a decade ago. In October, a team including defense attorney Michael Piccarreta and former state Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman petitioned for a dismissal of the case, or an evidentiary hearing.
Re-examining the evidence and original testimony, fire investigators have been unable to rule out an accidental cause of the blaze.
Retrying Taylor before a jury would be almost impossible. Much of the evidence has been lost or destroyed in the four decades since the trial. Many witnesses have died.
Instead of a new trial, Taylor will stand before Judge Richard Fields on Tuesday, offering a no-contest plea. He will then be found guilty of 28 counts of murder, and sentenced to the 42 years he has spent behind bars.
Taylor will likely be set free Tuesday, said Rick Unklesbay, a retired prosecutor who has been consulting on the case for the Pima County Attorney's Office.
"Efforts have been made to locate and discuss the plea with surviving victims of the fire, many of whom plan to be present at Tuesday's hearing," Unklesbay said Friday.
CBS's 60 Minutes is set to broadcast a segment about the case Sunday evening.
Taylor has been held at the Lewis prison in Buckeye, where he has worked as a barber.
He was been disciplined 68 times in his 42 years behind bars, mostly for disrespect or disobeying orders. His prison record shows a 1991 sexual assault incident, narcotics possession in 1991 and arson in 1996.