60 Minutes: The Pioneer Hotel Fire
At Christmastime in 1970, an Arizona landmark caught fire, killing 28 people. The story made headlines across the country, and 16-year-old Louis Taylor was arrested for the crime. Taylor was railroaded, according to 60 Minutes, and even his trial judge admitted that he would not have voted to convict the young man. With new evidence finally emerging, Steve Kroft reported on whether Taylor may see his life sentence overturned.
60 Minutes: 1970 Pioneer Fire
The modern Pioneer building houses offices, but it was once a frontier hotel and city icon. The packed hotel was engulfed when fire engines arrived in 1970. Hotel guests were trapped inside. There were no sprinklers, and fire exits were padlocked shut for security.
Guests improvised with bedsheets and even tossed mattresses below in attempts to soften their landings. Louis Taylor, then 16, was discovered on the third floor, and he was enlisted by police officer Bill Briamonte to help knock on doors to alert guests.
60 Minutes: Louis Taylor Pioneer Hotel
Firemen saw Taylor as a hero, but the police saw him in a different light. They arrested Taylor on the scene, and police officer Klaus Bergman, who was there that night, thought the charges were premature.
Taylor was interrogated throughout the night, with no attorney or guardian present. He was the prime suspect, and Detective David Smith said the finding was that Taylor was complicit in the crime.
60 Minutes: David Smith Pioneer Hotel
One big question is what Taylor was doing at the hotel. In a 2002 60 Minutes story, Smith recalled interviewing the suspect and recalled the suspect’s alleged demeanor and reactions during the interview.
A theory was that the fire was set to steal items from hotel guests. None of the interviews were recorded or commemorated in notes. The circumstantial evidence, Taylor’s “inconsistent statements,” and jailhouse testimony were enough for an all-white jury to convict Taylor and sentence him to life in prison.
60 Minutes: Louis Taylor Conviction
Court TV and 60 Minutes teamed up to look at the case in 2002, when Taylor was 47. That was a decade ago, and Taylor maintained his innocence in a jailhouse phone interview. He said that he was there to find food, and he made a mistake in trusting the police, who were only after a conviction.
Evidence that may have cleared Taylor’s name, including a letter from the assistant fire chief, was never investigated or presented to a jury. The letter recounted numerous suspicious fires and a description of another suspect.
60 Minutes: Arizona Justice Project
David Smith told 60 Minutes that he never had any of this information at the time he was investigating the case. The description matched a serial arsonist, who left Arizona immediately following the fire.
According to Smith, no information he turned up in the investigation indicated suspects other than Taylor. After the 2002 story, the Arizona Justice Project, a nonprofit that helps investigate wrongful convictions got interested in the case. Now, they may have collected the evidence needed to prove Taylor’s innocence.
60 Minutes: Ed Novak & Louis Taylor
Arizona attorney Ed Novak leads Taylor’s volunteer defense team, which has pored over the case to help clear Louis Taylor’s name, all these decades later.
For example, trial testimony from fire investigator Cy Holmes classified the fire as intentional, but more recently, Novak deposed Holmes. The witness now says that he walked through the hotel 10 days after the fire, making preliminary conclusions matching Taylor’s description.
60 Minutes: Racially Charged Testimony
Holmes testified that black people used fire as a tool for financial gain or to get revenge. This racist testimony calls into question the witness’s credibility.
What’s more, new fire investigation science calls into question whether the Pioneer Hotel fire was even an arson. Five top arson experts from around the country reviewed the case, and John Lentini spoke with 60 Minutes about what they found.
60 Minutes: Pioneer Hotel Fire Cause
Forty years ago, fire science was rudimentary. Lentini said that he concluded this case was a false accusation of arson.
The presumption of arson was often a foregone conclusion in past investigations, but the cause of every fire cannot be determined, according to Lentini. “It could have been a cigarette. It could have been an overhead light” that set the Pioneer fire.
60 Minutes: Louis Taylor Attorneys
Novak, Taylor’s attorney, is petitioning to have Louis Taylor’s conviction overturned. They are requesting a new trial in the matter as well.
Prosecutor Barbara Lawall asked the Tucson Fire Department to re-investigate the case, and they reached the same conclusion: the fire’s cause cannot be determined.
60 Minutes: Louis Taylor No Contest
Despite these new conclusions and evidence, Lawall made a counter-offer. She would agree to Taylor’s release, if he pled “no contest” to arson and murder.
That was not good enough for Novak or the team. But Lawall’s supposed motive was to protect the conviction. Novak said that he was unsure he could be a party to that deal, even if Taylor wanted to take it.
60 Minutes: Steve Kroft & Barbara Lawall
After being denied an interview by the prosecutor’s office, Steve Kroft ambushed Lawall on the street to see what she had to say about the report. Since the case was pending, she did not want to get into the details of the case.
When pressed, she stood by the 42-year-old jury verdict. As for the racially charged testimony of Cy Holmes, Lawall stood by his qualifications as a fire investigator. She said that Taylor’s fate should be up to the courts.
60 Minutes: Louis Taylor Update
“Last time I checked, we don’t convict people on a possibility,” Novak said.
Louis Taylor, now 58, finally decided to take the “no contest” deal, and was expected to be released after an April 2 2013 hearing, though he maintains his innocence.
What do you think about this case?