Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall supports the plea agreement in the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire case in part because if Louis Cuen Taylor was retried, it would be impossible to get a conviction, court documents show.
Taylor is set to plead no contest today as part of an agreement that sets aside his original conviction - 28 counts of felony murder and a life sentence - and gives him credit for time already served. He has spent 42 years in prison in connection with the Tucson hotel fire that killed 29 people.
According to Pima County Superior Court documents filed Monday, LaWall based her decision on evidence lost over the years, and new fire techniques used now that would make it impossible to prove Taylor committed the arson.
The plea is set for 10 a.m. before Superior Court Judge Richard Fields, said defense attorney Michael Piccarreta, who along with three other attorneys, and the Arizona Justice Project, worked on Taylor's case. The project is an organization that works to help inmates overturn wrongful convictions, according to its website.
Piccarreta said he expects Taylor to "eat a real meal" and go to sleep tonight in a room "with an open window and fresh air on his face" - something Taylor has longed for since being locked up at age 16. Taylor turns age 59 this week.
LaWall had the Tucson Fire Department conduct its own review of the case, and investigators "found that a fire cause determination is not possible, partially because they could not examine the scene, or any evidence that had been destroyed," court documents say.
The state's original trial expert, Cy Homes, still practices arson investigation and he maintains that the hotel fire was an arson, the documents say.
The Tucson Fire Department and an Arson Review Committee were "unable to say whether the cause of the Pioneer fire was arson or not," the documents state.
LaWall maintains in the court filing, however, that Taylor lied about the case, "his story continued to change," and that he admitted he had set fires in the past, although never to an occupied structure.
Arrested at the Pioneer within hours of the fire, "he was 16 years of age and had no legitimate reason to be at the hotel in those early morning hours. ... When questioned first by hotel employees and later by police officers, Taylor gave inconsistent statements as to his reason for being at the hotel, admittedly lied that he had seen other persons actually start the fire, admitted that he had set fires in the past and ultimately denied culpability in the Pioneer fire," the court documents say.
"It should be noted that during the defendant's time in prison he has been found guilty of arson within the Department of Corrections," LaWall's filing adds, giving no details.
Taylor has maintained his innocence in the Pioneer fire, and struggled with the decision to plead no contest, Katie Puzauskas, executive co-director of the Arizona Justice Project, has told the Star.
Judge Charles L. Hardy, who presided in Taylor's 1972 trial, publicly expressed skepticism about the jury's decision to convict him, the Star reported.
In the fire just after midnight on Dec. 20, 1970, 28 people "died from smoke inhalation, burns or, in some cases, by falling to their death from windows in an effort to save themselves or loved ones," court documents note. "One person died months later from injuries sustained in the fire, although that victim was never added to the indictment.
"Many of the victims were from Mexico who had come to stay in downtown Tucson for Christmas shopping. Entire families were killed in the fire.
"Bystanders were horrified as they watched helplessly as victims jumped from windows to their deaths."
Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at email@example.com or 573-4104.