PHOENIX (AP) — A man who did more than 40 years in prison in a Tucson hotel fire that killed 29 people broke down in tears Wednesday as he reflected on his case and described how he spent his first hours of freedom, including going on a hike and enjoying a burger from a fast-food joint.
Louis Taylor, 58, was released Tuesday after doubts about his conviction surfaced and he entered a no-contest plea in a deal with prosecutors. He told reporters Wednesday that he is innocent and called his case an “injustice,” but said he decided to take a deal with prosecutors to get out rather than fight for a complete exoneration.
“I wasn’t going to give them another hour, another minute,” Taylor said.
Taylor was 16 years old when he was arrested in the Pioneer Fire in Tucson in 1970. Taylor, who is black, was later convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison.
He described his first day of freedom since he was a teenager, including his adjustment to technology and his struggles with using what he called an “Apple telephone.”
“They had only 8-tracks in 1970,” he said.
He said he took an hour-long hike in Sabino Canyon near Tucson to “transcend back into society.” He went to In-N-Out Burger and got some food and a T-shirt. He cooked bacon and eggs for breakfast. Now that he’s out of prison, he said he doesn’t know what he’ll do for a living or where he’ll live.
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.
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.
“You can’t make up for 42 years. You just gotta move forward,” he said.
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.
“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: “Do as you choose Mr. Taylor. But choose wisely. Do not waste your new beginning.”