In 2002, 60 Minutes, along with Court TV, investigated the Pioneer Hotel fire, a historic fire that swept through an Arizona landmark in 1970 and killed 28 people. A 16-year-old boy, Louis Taylor, was arrested for setting the fire and later convicted of 28 counts of murder.
Steve Kroft's 2002 investigation uncovered evidence that Taylor was railroaded by police and prosecutors eager to resolve the city's worst tragedy. The story prompted a nonprofit legal organization to take on Taylor's case, and after a decade of work, it has discovered striking new evidence that could free Taylor after nearly 42 years behind bars. 60 Minutes revisits the case and the new evidence in a report to be broadcast Sunday, March 31 at 7:00 p.m. ET/PT.
The new evidence in the case throws into question whether the fire was even arson. An independent panel of the five top fire experts in the country evaluated the evidence and testimony from the Pioneer case records and found the cause of the blaze could not be determined. John Lentini, one of the experts, tells Kroft there was no evidence of arson.
"You can't have a murder conviction based on arson if there was no arson," says Edward Novak, the lead attorney on Taylor's defense team.
Novak, a prominent Arizona attorney, recently deposed Cy Holmes, one of the original fire investigators. 60 Minutes obtained a copy of the videotaped deposition in which Holmes reveals for the first time some shocking information about how quickly he arrived at a preliminary conclusion about the cause of the blaze and the type of person who set it. "I felt that the culprit was probably black and he was probably 18," said Holmes on the tape.
Novak asks Holmes why he thought an African American man had set the fire. Holmes replies, "Blacks at that point, their background was the use of fire for beneficial purposes...clearing lands and doing cleanup work...fire was a tool...[they're] comfortable with it," he told Novak in the deposition. "And if they get mad at somebody, the first thing they do is use something they're comfortable with. Fire was one of them."
This new deposition has discredited one of the key witnesses in the original case against Taylor, who is black. Armed with this deposition, as well as the conclusions of the five fire experts, Taylor's lawyers have petitioned the Pima County Prosecutor to vacate Taylor's murder conviction, release him from prison and conduct a new trial. After reviewing the petition, the current prosecutor, Barbara Lawall, commissioned the Tucson Fire Department to re-investigate the Pioneer blaze using the latest scientific methods. It, too, concluded that the cause of the fire could not be determined.
60 Minutes requested an interview with Ms. Lawall, but she declined. Kroft met her on a Tucson street to ask her why Taylor is still in prison despite the new evidence. "Nobody can say for sure whether it was or whether it wasn't [arson]," says Lawall.
Historical photographs provided by Arizona Historical Society