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New trial sought in deadly 1970 Tucson hotel fire

TUCSON, Ariz. -- A Tucson Fire Department investigator who reviewed evidence available from a 1970 hotel fire that killed 29 people says he can't tell what caused the fire.

Attorneys for Louis Taylor said the fire investigator's report supports their request for a new trial for Taylor. The 59-year-old is serving 28 concurrent life sentences for the Pioneer Hotel fire.

However, a Pima County prosecutor said the original fire investigator still believes the fire was arson. The prosecutor also said that the fire department investigator whose report is cited by Taylor's lawyers didn't have access to evidence that's been destroyed.

Numerous people were trapped in the 11-story hotel by a fire that broke out on the fourth floor. Fire trucks' ladders couldn't reach the upper floors.

Some of the 28 people killed immediately died leaping from windows, while others burned to death or died of carbon-monoxide poisoning. The 29th victim died nine months later of injuries suffered in the fire.

Taylor, then 16, was arrested immediately and convicted in 1972 after a seven-week trial.

According to the Arizona Daily Star, Taylor's lawyers want either Taylor's convictions overturned or an evidentiary hearing held. They say defense experts would testify that modern science does not support concluding that the fire was arson.

``No reasonable jury would have convicted'' Taylor if jurors had been privy to fire department investigator Wayne Cummings' recent findings, Taylor's attorneys from the Arizona Justice Project said in court documents.

Because it's unknown exactly where the fire started and because of the ``lack of elimination of all accidental fire causes, a fire cause determination is not possible reviewing the material provided to me,'' Cummings said.

Cummings said he reviewed electronic and paper records from the case.

The defense team also alleged prosecutors engaged in misconduct by not giving defense attorneys a laboratory report that said no accelerants were found and by talking to the judge without defense attorneys present.

Prosecutors have until March 25 to file a response in writing, but Deputy County Attorney Rick Unklesbay said the original fire investigator still believes the fire was purposely set.

Also, Cummings didn't have access to a great deal of evidence because it's been destroyed, Unklesbay said.

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.

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