Pima County prosecutor Rick Unklesbay noted his office’s insistence that Taylor is guilty. He added, however, that fire investigators for the defense and the state, reviewing the remaining evidence, say a cause of the blaze could not be determined, something that also would hamper efforts to secure a fresh conviction.
Unklesbay later explained how both state and defense experts at Taylor’s original trial determined the blaze was arson. He said Taylor was found at the hotel with five boxes of matches. He wrote in a memorandum to the court that hotel employees “found the defendant standing by himself simply looking at the fire.”
In his deal with prosecutors, Taylor was allowed to avoid admitting guilt outright to each count against him, read aloud by the judge in a monotone voice, to which Taylor replied 28 times, “No contest.” Taylor was never charged in the death months later of a 29th victim.
A no contest plea allows defendants to neither dispute the charges against them nor admit guilt while offering no defense. Taylor also gave up his right to seek vindication or compensation from the state. He offered no statement to court.
Attorney Ed Novak explained outside court that Taylor chose to accept the deal instead of remaining in prison for an indefinite amount of time. He said prosecutors promised to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court if he chose to seek a new trial.
“It’s a question of freedom now versus freedom three years from now,” Novak said.
Questions of race have long loomed over the case. The lead fire investigator at the time told AP this week he had profiled the suspect as “probably a negro,” but the man insisted the statements had nothing to do with Taylor’s arrest.
“That statement had nothing to do with Louis’ prosecution,” Cy Holmes, now 83, said. “I wasn’t part of Mr. Taylor’s guilt. I was just involved in determining whether or not the fire was arson.”
The judge who presided over his trial, meanwhile, had publicly expressed skepticism about the conviction and stayed in touch with Taylor, sending him Christmas gifts and law books.
Reports in 2002 by CBS’ “60 Minutes” raised questions about whether the fire was, in fact, arson, and the Arizona Justice Project, which works on behalf of inmates believed to be wrongly convicted, said prosecutor’s committed misconduct at Taylor’s original trial when they neglected to inform his defense team that no accelerants had been found at the hotel.
Tucson authorities at the time then began reviewing evidence while the Arizona Justice Project examined case files to determine whether he received a fair trial.
Albert Pesqueira, an area assistant fire chief, was just 21 when he responded to the scene. He remembers parts of the once exclusive hotel reduced to rubble and ashes. But what he recalls most are the victims, specifically three children who fell to their deaths from an upper-floor window. To this day, he wonders if they jumped or were pushed by their parents in an attempt to save them.
“I have nightmares about that,” Pesqueira said. “The parents stayed up there and they died.”