TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- A man who was locked up more than 40 years for a 1970 Arizona hotel fire that killed 29 people walked out of prison a free man Tuesday, hours after reaching a deal with prosecutors amid questions about his conviction.
"It's a tale of two tragedies: the Pioneer Hotel fire and my conviction," Louis Taylor told reporters gathered outside the prison.
Taylor, who turns 59 Saturday, was just a teenager when he was arrested for the fire, but consistently denied any involvement. When he appeared in a packed Tucson courtroom earlier in the day, he faced a choice: continue his fight, maybe for years more, to clear his name or enter a plea and get out of prison now.
"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.
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. A news conference was planned for Wednesday.
"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.