TUCSON, Ariz. — A man who has spent more than four decades in prison for a Tucson hotel fire that killed 29 people, including some who jumped from windows to escape the searing heat, is expected to be released Tuesday as part of a deal with prosecutors.
Louis Cuen Taylor was convicted of murder as a teen but has maintained his innocence in the December 1970 fire at the Pioneer Hotel.
The Tucson man, who turns 59 this week, is scheduled to plead no contest to murder in an agreement that sets aside his original conviction and gives him credit for time served, the Arizona Daily Star reported (http://bit.ly/10lCXOT).
The fire came during a Christmas party for employees of an aircraft company and left many guests trapped in their rooms.
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The building had no sprinkler system, exits were locked to prevent theft, and firetruck ladders were too short to reach the higher floors. Those factors led some people to jump to their deaths. Others died in their rooms.
Most died of carbon-monoxide poisoning while waiting for rescue.
One victim died months later in a hospital.
Taylor, then 16, was in the hotel that night watching the festivities. After the fire broke out, he and a hotel custodian tried to extinguish the blaze, then Taylor helped some of the guests escape. Hours later, he was taken into custody, interviewed by police without parental consent and charged with starting the fire.
He was convicted in 1972 and sentenced to 28 concurrent life terms.
Judge Charles Hardy, who presided over Taylor’s 1972 trial, publicly expressed skepticism about the jury’s decision to convict the teen.
In one letter he sent Taylor in the early 1980s, the judge, who died in December 2010, said he was negotiating with Arizona lawmakers to have the sentence commuted, but the deal was predicated on Taylor admitting guilt, which he refused to do.
In October, attorneys with the Arizona Justice Project, a volunteer legal group that attempts to evaluate cases on behalf of inmates who believe they were wrongfully convicted, asked a court to dismiss the case or hold an evidentiary hearing.
The attorneys said several defense experts, using modern forensic fire science, would testify they would not have ruled the blaze arson.
The defense team also alleged a prosecutor engaged in misconduct by not giving defense attorneys a laboratory report that said no accelerants were found, and by talking to the judge without defense attorneys present.
Michael Piccarreta, one of the Arizona Justice Project lawyers advocating on behalf of Taylor, said Taylor maintains his innocence but will plead no contest as a way to get out of prison quickly.
Piccarreta said Sunday that Taylor’s lawyers believe he would have eventually prevailed, but thought the process could have taken an additional 18 months.
An investigator with the Tucson Fire Department recently reviewed the available evidence and was unable to determine what caused the blaze.
However, prosecutor Rick Unklesbay said the original fire investigator for the prosecution still believes the blaze was purposely set, and the fire investigator who recently reviewed the case lacked access to a great deal of evidence.
Much of the evidence in the case was destroyed in the 1990s or disappeared after civil attorneys took possession of it when they sued the hotel.