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.”
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.
Attorney Ed 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.
Questions of race have long loomed over the case. 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.”
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.
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.”