On Tuesday, fifty-nine-year-old Louis Taylor was released from prison after serving more than 42 years for a murder conviction. Mr. Taylor was convicted of murder in 1972 when he was sixteen-years-old for intentionally starting a fire at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson that resulted in the death of 29 people.
The fire, according to Northwest Fire/Rescue District Assistant Chief Al Pesqueira, the fire began on the hotel’s fourth floor and raced up the open stairways. Although attempts were made to rescue the hotel patrons, the Fire Department’s ladders were only able to reach the ninth floor. The hotel, however, was 11 stories high.
The Fire Department later found many of the victims, including the hotel’s owners, in the hallways of the hotel or in their rooms. Many died from burns and smoke inhalation. Several others died jumping out of the hotel’s windows.
According to Mr. Taylor attorneys, he was arrested after the fire because an employee of the hotel reportedly saw a young African American boy at the hotel. Mr. Taylor, who was questioned by police for six hours, was unable to provide Police with an explanation as to why he was present at the hotel. Police initially arrested him on trespass charges.
According to Police, Mr. Taylor, who frequently spent time in the downtown Tucson area, was committed to juvenile detention halls on four separate occasions; one for robbery when Mr. Taylor was thirteen years old. Mr. Taylor, who was called “utterly incorrigible” was later charged with 28 counts of murder and tried in Phoenix because a Judge feared Mr. Taylor would not get a fair trial in Tucson where the fire occurred.
During his trial in 1972, multiple people, including the hotel’s custodian and the hotel’s beverage manager, testified that Mr. Taylor helped extinguish the fire and also helped carry guests to safety. Mr. Taylor, who testified at his trial, said, “All that I was doing was helping.”
Although the jury found Mr. Taylor guilty, the trial Judge said, “The evidence supports a conviction, but I would not have convicted him myself.”
After spending much of his life in prison, volunteer attorneys with the Arizona Justice Project requested that the original convictions be vacated and that Mr. Taylor be granted a new trial on the grounds of the discovery of new evidence.
At a recent hearing, questions were raised as to whether the fire was even the result of arson. In light of the new developments in the case, prosecutors chose not to pursue a new trial because much of the evidence in the case had been destroyed and many of the witnesses have since passed away. County Attorney Barbara LaWall said even though the case will not go forward to a new trial, she had no doubts about what happened; “A fire was willfully and deliberately set, and Louis Taylor was the person who did that.”
In the end, Mr. Taylor chose to plea no contest to each murder charge, and Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard Fields then ordered the release of Mr. Taylor for time served.
As he walked out of the prison gates, Mr. Taylor said, “It feels good just to feel Mother Earth underneath my feet, free Mother Earth.”
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