TUCSON, Ariz. – Louis Taylor has been behind bars ever since he was teenager — convicted and sentenced to what he thought was a life prison term for a 1970 hotel fire in Tucson that killed 29 people. As the decades went by, he insisted that he was innocent and had nothing to do with starting the fire.
On Tuesday, the 58-year-old walked out of prison a free man after reaching a deal with prosecutors amid questions about his conviction. He spoke briefly to reporters as he left the prison and plans to speak at length about his conviction, case and newfound freedom at a news conference Wednesday.
"Welcome back, Mr. Taylor," said Judge Richard Fields after accepting Taylor's plea deal that meant he would no longer contest the charges he denied during his more than 15,000 days of incarceration.
Taylor faced a choice as new doubts emerged about his conviction: He could continue his fight, maybe for years more, to clear his name and potentially sue for a big settlement. Or he could enter a plea and get out of prison now, giving up any opportunity to file a lawsuit against the state.
"It's a tale of two tragedies, the Pioneer Hotel fire and my conviction," Taylor said as he left court in a shirt and jeans.
The case ended up back in court Tuesday after a new defense team and others raised fresh questions about the evidence used to convict Taylor. Authorities still insist Taylor is guilty, but they acknowledged that gaining a conviction at a new trial would be dicey given that some evidence has been lost and witnesses have either moved or died.
The blaze was one of Arizona's worst as hundreds of people gathered at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson to celebrate Christmas festivities. When the fire erupted, exits were blocked and fire truck ladders were too short to reach the upper floors. Many guests were trapped in their rooms. Some jumped to their deaths while others burned alive. Most victims died from carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Tuesday's hearing was marked by dramatic testimony from a Washington, D.C., man who was 4 years old when his father, an attorney, was killed in the fire at age 31. Paul d'Hedouville II said his dad had been awaiting his family to celebrate Christmas. He had gifts piled in his suite for his two sons.
"Instead, my father was buried on Christmas Eve 1970," he said. He lamented how his father was never there to show him how to ride a bike or teach him his Daffy Duck impression, and how his now elderly mom, who is recovering from leukemia, doesn't have her husband by her side.
"He was never able to dance with my bride at my wedding," d'Hedouville said.
"I harbor no feelings of ill will or vengeance against you," he added, staring at Taylor who sat at the defense table dressed in orange prison clothes.
Then d'Hedouville offered a single thought to Taylor without addressing the man's guilt: "Do as you choose Mr. Taylor. But choose wisely. Do not waste your new beginning."
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.
"Mr. Taylor maintains his innocence and the no contest plea allows him to continue to do so," Phoenix attorney Ed Novak told the judge.
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.
Taylor, who is black, was 16 at the time of his arrest, and contends he was wrongly convicted by an all-white jury. 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."
Taylor's appeals were exhausted after the U.S. Supreme Court denied him a new trial in 1983. 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.
However, Holmes said he stands by his determination that it was arson. Holmes said the techniques he used are the same procedures used today. He said the new findings are based on incomplete information, adding, "They didn't spend two full days digging through that place."
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."