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Man convicted in 1970 Arizona hotel fire that killed 29 expected to be released from prison

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TUCSON, Ariz. - A man who has spent more than four decades in prison for a Tucson hotel fire that killed 29 people, including some who jumped from windows to escape the searing heat, is expected to be released Tuesday as part of a deal with prosecutors.

Louis Cuen Taylor was convicted of murder as a teen but has maintained his innocence in the December 1970 fire at the Pioneer Hotel.

The Tucson man, who turns 59 this week, is scheduled to plead no contest to murder in an agreement that sets aside his original conviction and gives him credit for time served, the Arizona Daily Star reported (http://bit.ly/10lCXOT ).

The fire came during a Christmas party for employees of an aircraft company and left many guests trapped in their rooms.

The building had no sprinkler system, exits were locked to prevent theft, and fire truck ladders were too short to reach the higher floors. Those factors led some people to jump from windows to their deaths. Others burned to death in their rooms. Most died of carbon-monoxide poisoning while waiting for rescue.

In total, 29 lives were lost to the blaze, including one victim who died months later in a hospital.

Taylor, then 16, was in the hotel that night watching the festivities. After the fire broke out, he and a hotel custodian tried to extinguish the blaze, then Taylor helped some of the trapped and injured guests escape. Hours later, he was taken into custody, interviewed by police without parental consent and charged with starting the fire. He was convicted in 1972 and sentenced to 28 concurrent life terms.

Judge Charles L. Hardy, who presided over Taylor's 1972 trial, publicly expressed skepticism about the jury's decision to convict the Tucson teen. In one letter he sent Taylor in the early 1980s, the judge, who died in December 2010, said he was negotiating with Arizona lawmakers to have the sentence commuted, but the deal was predicated on Taylor admitting guilt, which he refused to do.

In October, attorneys with the Arizona Justice Project, a volunteer legal group that attempts to evaluate cases on behalf of inmates who believe they were wrongfully convicted, asked a court to dismiss the case or hold an evidentiary hearing.

The attorneys said several defence experts, using modern forensic fire science, would testify they would not have ruled the blaze arson. The defence team also alleged a prosecutor engaged in misconduct by not giving defence attorneys a laboratory report that said no accelerants were found and by talking to the judge without defence attorneys present.

Michael Piccarreta, one of the Arizona Justice Project lawyers advocating on behalf of Taylor, said Taylor maintains his innocence but will plead no contest as a way of getting out of prison quickly.

Piccarreta said Sunday that Taylor's lawyers believe he would have eventually prevailed, but thought the process could have taken another 18 months.

An investigator with the Tucson Fire Department recently reviewed the available evidence in the case and was unable to determine what caused the blaze.

However, prosecutor Rick Unklesbay said the original fire investigator for the prosecution still believes the blaze was purposely set, and the fire investigator who recently reviewed the case lacked access to a great deal of evidence. Much of the evidence in the case was destroyed in the 1990s or disappeared after civil attorneys took possession of it when they sued the hotel.

Unklesbay said in an interview last month that even though defence experts were unable to determine the fire's cause, that doesn't mean it wasn't arson. The prosecution's original fire investigator stands by his 42-year-old report, and other evidence presented at the 1972 trial indicated the fire was arson.

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Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com

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