NBC News – An Arizona man who has maintained for 42 years that he had nothing to do with a horrific hotel fire that killed more than two dozen people pleaded no contest Tuesday in a deal that sets aside his original conviction and frees him from prison.
“Welcome back, Mr. Taylor,” Tucson Superior Court Judge Richard Fields said after accepting 59-year-old Louis Cuen Taylor’s plea on Tuesday, reported The Arizona Daily Star. The plea deal gives him credit for time already served.
Taylor was just 16 years old when he was sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences for a fire that ripped through the Pioneer Hotel, a Tucson landmark that went up in flames in December 1970 while employees of an aircraft company were there for a Christmas party.
The only person to speak on behalf of the hotel victims on Tuesday was Paul D’Hedouville II, whose father was killed when he was 4.
“Mr. Taylor, I stand in front of you today to say I harbor no feeling of ill will or grievance against you,” D’Hedouville said, according to The Daily Star. “Do not waste your new beginning at life.”
Taylor, who is black, claims police pinned the crime on him and an all-white jury gave him an unfair trial. A 2002 examination of his case by CBS’ “60 Minutes” found evidence that he had been railroaded and led volunteer legal group The Arizona Justice Project to take on his case.
The blaze killed 29 people: Some jumped to their deaths, others were trapped in their rooms because fire truck ladders weren’t long enough to reach upper floors, but most victims died from carbon-monoxide poisoning inside the hotel.
Taylor was at the hotel that night because he was trying to score some free food and drinks from the Christmas revelers, according to “60 Minutes.” Once the fire broke out, police officers and rescue teams asked Taylor to bang on doors and help injured guests get out. Hours later, he was blamed for setting the blaze.
Taylor was interrogated without a lawyer present. The lead fire investigator on the case, Cy Holmes, determined in 1970 that the cause of the fire was arson.
In the “60 Minutes” investigation, Arizona Justice Project lawyers said newer fire techniques found that the cause of the fire was “undetermined” — that there was no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it had been arson.
In a Dec. 20, 1970, file photo, Tucson, Ariz., firefighters battle the Pioneer International Hotel fire that resulted in 29 deaths.
Holmes, the lead fire investigator, admitted in a 2002 deposition that his profile of potential suspects included race.
Click here to read the full story.