Attorneys: Fatal '70 hotel fire not arson

They ask that conviction in 28 deaths be set aside
2012-10-27T00:00:00Z 2014-09-05T15:31:55Z Attorneys: Fatal '70 hotel fire not arsonKim Smith Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 27, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Louis Cuen Taylor has spent the last 40 years sitting in an Arizona prison for setting fire to a downtown hotel, killing 29 people. This week, a group of attorneys working for free asked a judge to set aside Taylor's conviction, asserting the fire wasn't arson at all.

The attorneys also say prosecutors and a Tucson police detective engaged in misconduct.

On Dec. 20, 1970, many prominent citizens from Arizona and Sonora were packed into the Pioneer Hotel at Stone Avenue and Pennington in advance of the holidays.

While people were dancing to live music on the ground floor, a fire broke out on the fourth floor and raced its way to the top of the 11-story building.

The first floor's doors were locked because of prior vandalism, and the firetrucks' ladders couldn't reach the upper floors.

According to news accounts of the blaze, a few guests climbed down a fire-escape tower, but others leapt from windows.

In the end, four people died in the street; seven were burned to death; 17 died of carbon-monoxide poisoning; and one died nine months later of injuries received during the fire.

Taylor, then 16, was arrested immediately and convicted in 1972 following a seven-week trial and sentenced to 28 concurrent life terms.

Earlier this week, attorneys with the Arizona Justice Project filed a motion for post-conviction relief, asking for the case to be dismissed or for an evidentiary hearing. The Justice Project has been trying to get the case reconsidered for at least 10 years.

Among the many attorneys working on the case are Michael Piccarreta of Tucson and former Arizona State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman.

In their motion, the attorneys say Taylor left a downtown pool hall and went to the Pioneer that night to attend the many Christmas parties under way there.

After the fire started, it says, Taylor spent 2 1/2 hours waking people up and escorting them out of the hotel. Police found him on the third floor and took him into custody because a hotel employee reported that a "Negro boy" had told him the fire started during a fight between "two Negro boys with bushy hair."

Taylor cried and repeatedly denied killing anyone during hours of interrogation, his attorneys said.

"Increasingly defensive and agitated as the hours passed and the questioning continued, Mr. Taylor began to hypothesize different scenarios, adding accounts of suspicious looking individuals who may have been the culprits," the attorneys wrote. "As Mr. Taylor's statements and hypothetical theories grew more inconsistent, the detectives' questioning turned harsher and more accusatory."

Detectives found five books of matches on Taylor during a strip search; Taylor was a smoker, his attorneys wrote.

Cyrillis W. Holmes Jr., a fire investigator from California, was hired by the city to determine the cause of the fire. After looking at burn patterns, he determined there were two points of origin and therefore the cause of the fire had to be arson.

In their motion, the defense attorneys wrote: "New developments in fire science plainly establish the unreliability of the methodology, assumptions and conclusions of the experts who testified at (Taylor's) trial."

They go on to say, "When the facts and opinions expressed by the investigators in 1970 are analyzed using current fire investigation science and technology, this fire would not be classified as incendiary."

In addition, the attorneys have discovered that prosecutors never gave defense attorneys a laboratory report that says no accelerants were found in the six samples that were submitted to the lab for testing. The experts who testified at trial said they thought accelerants were used, and a jailhouse informant testified Taylor told him he used lighter fluid to start the fire. The informant later recanted.

The attorneys also argue in their motion that the prosecutor in the case discussed pending and anticipated defense motions with the judge without defense attorneys present. A tape of the conversation was discovered by Justice Project attorneys in August 2011.

A year earlier, Justice Project attorneys also found recordings of a Tucson police detective interviewing a juror who had been dismissed before the trial was over. During the conversations, the juror told the detective which remaining jurors were subject to influence, which were "wishy-washy" and which had minds of their own.

If the judge isn't inclined to set aside Taylor's conviction or give him an evidentiary hearing, the attorneys say he should be re-sentenced.

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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