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Man convicted of setting Pioneer Hotel fire freed after 42 years
TUCSON, Ariz. — After serving most of his life behind bars, 59-year-old Louis Taylor walked out of the Arizona State Prison in Tucson a free man Tuesday. He was 16 years old when he was convicted of starting a 1970 Tucson hotel fire that killed dozens of people.
"Hello guys, it feels good … to feel Mother Earth, free Mother Earth beneath my feet," Taylor told the press after being released.
With the Arizona Justice Project team and his attorney by his side, Taylor told reporters he was happy — and melancholy.
"It’s just unfortunate, it’s a tale of two tragedies. The Pioneer Hotel fire and me getting convicted for it," Taylor said.
Earlier in the day, Taylor pleaded no contest at a Superior Court hearing in downtown Tucson. The plea agreement reversed the multiple life sentences he was serving for the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire that killed 29 people.
Taylor, who is African-American, claimed he was wrongly imprisoned by the all-white jury who convicted him. Police reports showed that Taylor was helping evacuate people from the burning building, and that police never questioned other suspects.
Prosecutors however, told the judge, they still believe that Taylor is guilty. But they couldn’t pursue a new trial because most of the evidence in the case is gone, and many of the witnesses have died.
Only one person spoke at the hearing on behalf of one of the victims. The man said he was 4 years old when his father died in the fire, and spoke about difficulties living without him.
At the end of his comments the man spoke directly to Taylor, saying that he harbored no feelings of ill will or grievances against him. He asked Taylor to live the remainder of his life fully.
The packed room listened in silence when Judge Richard Fields agreed to the plea agreement and granted Taylor his release after serving 42 years.
"Welcome back Mr. Taylor," the judge said, the first person to greet Taylor back into society.
Attorney Edward Novak represented Taylor at the hearing. He says Taylor’s health and age were the reasons for consenting to the plea agreement. Novak says a new hearing could’ve taken months or even years to prove Taylor was innocent. Now he says the next step for his client is to adjust to a free life.
"The difficulty for him is organizing his future life without many tools to do that," Novak said. "I mean, he got some education in prison but he has been without independence and freedom for so long that I wonder if he remembers what it’s like."
Under the plea agreement, Taylor can’t sue the state for compensation.
Updated 4/2/2013 at 10:56 p.m.