PHOENIX (AP) – Louis Taylor broke down in tears Wednesday as he described how he spent his first hours of freedom after more than 40 years in prison for a hotel fire that killed 29 people: an evening hike and some fast food.
He struggled to operate what he called an “Apple telephone” and said he was more familiar with 8-tracks than modern technology.
Taylor was released Tuesday after doubts about his conviction surfaced and he agreed to a deal with prosecutors that set him free. He pleaded no contest to each of the nearly 30 counts of murder against him in an agreement that allowed the judge to sentence him to time served.
While he has consistently maintained his innocence, Taylor said he took the deal because he wanted out now instead of remaining in prison for years more to seek vindication at a new trial.
“I had no choice,” he said at a news conference with his attorneys on Wednesday. “I wasn’t going to give them another minute, another hour, another decade.”
The 1970 blaze at the Pioneer Hotel was one of the deadliest fires in Arizona history as hundreds of people gathered at the exclusive spot in Tucson to celebrate Christmas. 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. One of the victims was waiting for his family to arrive for the Christmas holiday. The gifts burned in the room.
Taylor was 16 when he was arrested that night at the hotel, where he says he went to get free drinks and food from various parties. The now-58-year-old, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison.
At his news conference, Taylor addressed the questions of race that have long loomed over the case. The original fire investigator told The Associated Press this week that he profiled the suspect as “probably a negro,” but insisted his statements had nothing to do with Taylor’s arrest.
“They singled me out,” Taylor said. “They targeted me. All they said was, `The little colored boy, the little negro boy.'”
He broke down in tears before continuing.
“I’m not saying it was a racial injustice but certainly it wasn’t fair what they did to me,” Taylor said.
The case started getting more attention a decade ago amid reports by “60 Minutes” that raised questions about whether the fire was arson. The Arizona Justice Project, which works on behalf of inmates believed to be wrongly convicted, began reviewing the evidence.
The group claimed prosecutors committed misconduct at Taylor’s original trial when they neglected to inform his defense that no accelerants were found at the scene. In addition, fire experts the group hired to review evidence could not determine what caused the blaze.
However, Cy Holmes, now 83 and the original fire investigator, stands by his findings that it was arson, noting experts taking on the case now don’t have all the evidence and didn’t spend days investigating the scene like he did.
Prosecutors 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.
Pima County authorities say Taylor was arrested with five boxes of matches and told numerous lies as he was questioned by investigators. They say he also admitted to starting arson fires in the past. In court papers, prosecutors wrote that hotel employees on the night of the blaze “found the defendant standing by himself simply looking at the fire.”
“This is not exoneration,” Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said. “Louis Taylor was found guilty at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Taylor claims he was railroaded, and that authorities never allowed him access to an attorney on the night of his arrest.
“I never hurt anybody in my whole life,” he said Wednesday, adding that he helped save guests. “I’m glad I went there because I saved a lot of people.”
He explained how while in prison, some inmates encouraged him to escape.
“I said, `I’m not going nowhere, I’m an innocent man,'” Taylor said. “Only the guilty run away. I held on, and look, I’m free now.”
Arizona Department of Corrections records show Taylor was found guilty while in prison of nearly 70 infractions, including disorderly conduct, sexual assault and arson.
He acknowledged he was “no angel” behind bars.
“You grow up in prison, you get a lot of bad habits,” he said.
Yet despite his claims of injustice, Taylor forgives everyone involved and is just looking to the future. The no contest pleas allowed Taylor to neither dispute the charges against him nor admit guilt, and he also gave up his right to seek a new trial.
He said he took an hour-long hike in a canyon near Tucson to “transcend back into society” upon his release. He went to In-N-Out Burger, then cooked bacon and eggs for breakfast on Wednesday morning.
“I’m going to try to do the best that I can. I can’t look back,” Taylor said. “I just thank God that I’m free.”
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