Articulate and sometimes emotional, Louis Cuen Taylor spoke Wednesday afternoon about his case, the legal system and his first days of freedom after four decades in prison.
Taylor was freed from prison Tuesday. He spent 42 years behind bars after a Phoenix jury convicted him of killing 28 of the 29 people who died in and after the Dec. 20, 1970, Pioneer Hotel Fire in downtown Tucson. On Tuesday, he pleaded no contest in the deaths as part of a deal worked out with the Pima County Attorney's Office and the Arizona Justice Project. The agreement set aside Taylor's original conviction and gave him credit for time already served.
Still, Taylor maintains his innocence, while the prosecutor's office insists the deal does not exonerate him of wrongdoing.
At the news conference, Taylor and representatives of his legal team called on Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall to acknowledge the mistakes of her predecessors.
"The integrity of the (justice) system depends on coming clean. That's what needs to be said here," said retired Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman, a Taylor supporter.
Taylor, then 16 and known to police as a "delinquent," was in the hotel that night watching the festivities at a big holiday party and trying to cadge free drinks. After the early-morning fire broke out, he and a hotel custodian tried to extinguish the blaze. When that failed, Taylor helped some of the trapped and injured guests escape. Hours later, he was taken into custody, interviewed by police without parental consent and charged with starting the fire.
Taylor's deal was brokered in part because evidence came to light that showed now-deceased county prosecutor Horton C. Weiss and his investigator withheld evidence, had inappropriate communications with jurors and spoke to the judge without defense attorneys present, Justice Project attorneys said. Advances in forensic fire science also played a part in his release.
"I was hoping Barbara LaWall would do the right thing and exonerate me," Taylor said Wednesday. "I just want to move forward. This woman doesn't want to cure the injustice. That's on her. I'm not going to spend another day, another minute worrying about it."
At a news conference after the hearing Tuesday, LaWall made clear that her office stands by the original conviction. But, "We concluded that justice would best be served in light of unique facts of this particular case by allowing Louis Taylor to plead no contest at this time, whereupon the court then could affirm his guilt and then he would receive time served in this case of 42 years."
Taylor said he planned to attend an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game in Phoenix Wednesday night with one of his attorneys. On his first night of freedom, he took a walk in Sabino Canyon with friends and enjoyed a backyard barbecue.
During his years in prison, Taylor lost contact with most of his family. His parents and several of his siblings, including a twin sister, died while he was incarcerated.
He acknowledged that an attorney in town has offered him a job, and the Tucson native said he may someday return to live in his hometown, but for now he plans to settle in the Phoenix area.
He will live in housing designated for former prisoners re-entering society and receive job training and support in adapting to a world beyond prison.
Note: Reporter Kimberly Matas has been researching the Pioneer Hotel story for several years as part of an independent book project. Contact her at email@example.com or at 573-4191.