It was one of the darkest nights in Tucson’s history when a morbid spectacle of human tragedy unfolded. Just after midnight, a blaze broke out at the prestigious Pioneer Hotel in downtown Tucson. The hotel was filled with eleven stories of guests combined with a lavish Christmas party going on in the grand ballroom. The landmark building’s firefighting measures were badly out of date, and the Pioneer quickly transformed into an inferno. Twenty-eight people would die from smoke inhalation, burns, or, in some cases, when they jumped out of windows to escape. The fire wiped out whole families.
Louis Taylor was just a 16-year-old kid in December of 1970. He said he had gone to the hotel that night to try to score free food and drinks from holiday parties happening there. Within hours of the fire, police had Taylor in handcuffs. He wasn’t a guest and did not work there. And he had books of matches in his pocket. During police interrogations, the juvenile claimed to have seen someone set the fire. This was before anyone had even suspected arson. Then the young man changed his story multiple times making officers suspicious. Maybe it was arson; maybe it was Taylor who started the fire.
Experts for the prosecution and the defense testified that the fire, in their opinion, was caused by arson. Their explanations differed greatly, of course. In the end, Taylor was convicted on 28 counts of felony murder for arson and sentenced to consecutive life sentences. Despite the 29 deaths, one of the victims, a nurse, died of smoke inhalation months after the fire, but Taylor was never charged with her death. Taylor has maintained that the police targeted him because he is black, and that he had no chance before an all-white jury.
Then in 2002, the Arizona Justice Project took on his case and questioned the evidence against the convict. The Justice Project’s investigation raised serious concerns. Most notably, Taylor was interrogated without a lawyer present, and officials used racial profiling in finding a suspect. Also, newer fire-investigation techniques could not even pinpoint arson as the cause of the fire. Forensic experts now say they can no longer determine whether someone set the hotel fire on that cool winter day in 1970. And so this week, after almost 43 years, Taylor pleaded no contest to the charges in a new hearing and was sentenced to time served.
Taylor is still a felon because the no-contest plea has the legal weight of a conviction.
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