How the Case Against a Man Convicted of a Deadly Hotel Fire Fell Apart

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 2 2013 3:08 PM

How the Case Against a Man Convicted of a Deadly Hotel Fire Fell Apart 42 Years Later

Screen shot 2013-04-02 at 2.58.10 P
A fire at the Hotel Pioneer left 29 people dead

Screenshot from CBS' 60 Minutes

More than four decades ago, then 16-year-old Louis Taylor was convicted of a crime he said he didn't commit: the arson of the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson, Ariz., in which 29 people died.* Today, he's expected to be released after accepting a plea deal that involves a plea of "no contest" to the crimes. That's more than a decade after a 60 Minutes report questioned Taylor's conviction, including whether the fire was even arson at all. 

Taylor was arrested after he assisted occupants out of the hotel during the fire, according to police and fire officials interviewed by CBS who saw Taylor working with firemen to help clear the building. After his swift arrest, Taylor, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury and handed 28 consecutive life sentences. But the evidence and investigation leading to that conviction was sketchy and rushed: For one thing, the lead investigator into the cause of the fire was a man named Cy Holmes, who still investigates fires today using the same methods he used 40 years ago in the Taylor case. Although Holmes didn't find any accelerants, he told the Associated Press that he concluded the fire was "definitely" arson based on burning patterns of the bats he found dead in the hallways, a claim he stands by decades later. Holmes also apparently provided a profile of the arsonist to the city council after his preliminary investigation: "He’s probably a negro, and he’s probably 18," he told them then. Here's the AP, explaining how Holmes and prosecutors may have gotten the whole story wrong: 

The Arizona Justice Project, which works on behalf of inmates believed to be wrongly convicted, asked a court in October to dismiss the case or hold an evidentiary hearing, noting several experts using modern forensic science could testify that it was indeterminable whether the fire was arson. The lawyers also contend prosecutorial misconduct at Taylor’s trial when his defense was not provided with reports indicating no accelerants were found.
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Even if the fire was arson, Taylor, who says he was at the hotel to steal some food and drinks from a Christmas party taking place that evening, shouldn't have been the only suspect. A 2009 update to the original 60 Minutes report on the Pioneer Hotel fire identifies other leads that police apparently failed to investigate, including a known arsonist in the area who disappeared after police wanted to question him about the hotel blaze. But it looks like once Taylor was in custody for the high-profile fire, other possibilities were off the table. 

It should be noted that although Taylor maintains his innocence, he accepted the prosecutor's plea bargain, which forced a "no contest" plea, in order to expedite his release—a trial to clear his name could have kept him in jail for another year. 

To New Yorker readers, the case may be reminiscent of a stunning investigative piece by David Grann in 2009 that looked at the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson death of his children. The strength of the case against Willingham was almost entirely based on the findings of the initial arson investigators who, in Grann's piece, come off as roughly about as scientific as astrologists. Here's an excerpt from that New Yorker piece, which is worth at least one read all the way through: 

Many arson investigators, it turned out, had only a high-school education. In most states, in order to be certified, investigators had to take a forty-hour course on fire investigation, and pass a written exam. Often, the bulk of an investigator’s training came on the job, learning from "old-timers" in the field, who passed down a body of wisdom about the telltale signs of arson, even though a study in 1977 warned that there was nothing in "the scientific literature to substantiate their validity." ... many arson investigators believed that what they did was more an art than a science—a blend of experience and intuition. In 1997, the International Association of Arson Investigators filed a legal brief arguing that arson sleuths should not be bound by a 1993 Supreme Court decision requiring experts who testified at trials to adhere to the scientific method. What arson sleuths did, the brief claimed, was "less scientific."

Read more on Taylor's release here. Or watch the most recent 60 Minutes update on their investigation here

Correction, April 2, 2013: An earlier version of this post misspelled Tucson.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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