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Taylor to go free after plea in 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire

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Taylor to go free after plea in 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire

Prosecutors: Judge should accept deal

  • Louis Taylor
    DOCLouis Taylor

Louis Taylor pleaded no contest Tuesday to 28 counts of felony murder in the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire as part of a deal that will see him set free after 42 years behind bars. Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall told a judge Monday that with a retrial impossible, he should accept a deal in the case.

Louis was just 16 years old when he was sent to prison after a trial tainted with racism. An African American, he was found guilty by an all-white jury. In the years since, questions have been raised about whether he was responsible for setting the fire, which killed 29 people.

After years of work by the Arizona Justice Project, Taylor will be set free Tuesday as part of the plea deal. His original life sentence was set aside Tuesday morning, and he was sentenced instead to the time he has already served.

In a memo laying out prosecutors' reasoning behind the plea deal, LaWall told Judge Richard Fields that because much of the evidence in the case has been lost, and because advances in arson investigation practices, the state would not be able to retry Taylor for setting the blaze.

Even so, enough evidence exists to support finding Taylor guilty of 28 counts of felony murder, LaWall wrote.

Taylor has steadfastly maintained his innocence for four decades. His attorneys have scheduled news conferences Wednesday in Phoenix and Tucson.

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.

He was convicted of 28 counts of felony 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.

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. Re-examining the evidence and original testimony, fire investigators have been unable to rule out an accidental cause of the blaze.

CBS's 60 Minutes 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.

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