PHOENIX (AP) — A man who has spent more than 40 years in prison for a 1970 hotel fire that killed 29 people agreed to a deal with prosecutors Tuesday that cleared the way for him to be released after his conviction was called into question.
The plea deal marks a stunning reversal for Louis Taylor, who was 16 years old when he was arrested in the fire at the Pioneer Hotel, where employees of an aircraft company were celebrating at a Christmas party. He is expected to be set free later Tuesday or Wednesday once his paperwork is processed.
Taylor, 59, showed no visible reaction as he accepted the deal and said "no contest" 28 different times — for each murder count leveled against him. When it was all finished, Superior Court Judge Richard Fields said, "Welcome back, Mr. Taylor."
Taylor was sentenced to 28 consecutive life sentences and repeatedly has maintained his innocence. Taylor, who is black, contends he was wrongly convicted by an all-white jury after he says police failed to investigate other suspects. Reports at the time indicate Taylor was helping people escape the blaze before being arrested later that night.
Prosecutors still believe that Taylor is guilty, but said they would not be able to pursue a new trial due to a lack of evidence and living witnesses.
Taylor did not speak in court on his own behalf and had no statement. A news conference was scheduled for Wednesday.
The hearing was marked by dramatic testimony from a Washington, D.C., man who was 4 years old when his father was killed in the fire at the age of 31. Paul d'Hedouville II said his father was staying at the hotel and waiting for his family to arrive for a Christmas vacation, with gifts in his suite.
"Instead, my father was buried on Christmas Eve 1970," d'Hedouville said.
He lamented how his father was never there to teach him how to ride a bike or see his soccer games. "He was never able to dance with my bride at my wedding," d'Hedouville said.
He did not address questions of Taylor's guilt as he looked directly at the inmate and said, "Do as you choose Mr. Taylor. But choose wisely. Do not waste your new beginning."
"I harbor no feelings of ill will or vengeance against you."
Defense attorney Michael Piccarreta said this weekend that Taylor still maintains his innocence but wanted to plead no contest Tuesday to get out of prison quickly. Piccarreta said Taylor's lawyers believe they would have eventually prevailed at a new trial, but the process could have taken a long time.
The plea also negates Taylor's ability to sue the state to seek compensation — something that could have only happened if he had gotten a new trial and been exonerated. That process could have taken two to three years.
"It's a question of freedom now versus freedom three years from now," said attorney Ed Novak.
The 1970 blaze was one of the worst in Arizona history.
Many guests were trapped in their rooms as the blaze engulfed the building, and fire truck ladders were too short to reach the upper floors. Some people jumped to their deaths while others burned in their rooms. Most victims died from carbon-monoxide poisoning.
His appeals were exhausted after the U.S. Supreme Court denied him a new trial in 1983. All the while, the judge who presided over his trial has 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.
Police at the time then began reviewing evidence, and a volunteer legal group, the Arizona Justice Project, examined case files to determine whether he received a fair trial. However, the lead fire investigator on the case told The Associated Press he stands by his determination that it was arson.
"Yes, definitely, there's no question about it," Cy Holmes, now 83, said Monday.
The Arizona Justice Project, which works on behalf of inmates believed to be wrongly convicted, asked a court in October to dismiss the case or hold an evidentiary hearing, noting several experts using modern forensic science could testify that it was indeterminable whether the fire was arson.
The lawyers also contend prosecutorial misconduct at Taylor's trial when his defense was not provided with reports indicating no accelerants were found.
Taylor was never charged in the death months later of a 29th victim from injuries sustained in the fire.
Holmes, who runs Cy Holmes Fire Investigations in Elk Grove, Calif., said the techniques he used to determine the fire was arson are the same procedures used currently. "Basically, what I did 42 years ago and the manner in which I did it is still valid today," he said.
Holmes said the new findings by Taylor's defense experts are based on incomplete information, noting much of the evidence was destroyed in the 1990s or disappeared after civil attorneys took possession when they sued the hotel.
He also added, "They didn't spend two full days digging through that place."
Holmes acknowledged he didn't find any accelerants, but said it was clear the fire was started in two places. His findings of arson were based, in part, on bats that were found in the hotel hallways, and the patterns in which they were burned.
Holmes defended his comments at the time profiling a potential suspect, some of which are now being used to accuse authorities of racism in the case.
He said he told the City Council after the fire, "He's probably a negro, and he's probably 18," basing his theory on years of experience investigating arson cases, Holmes told the AP.
"But that statement had nothing to do with Louis' prosecution," Holmes said. "I wasn't part of Mr. Taylor's guilt. I was just involved in determining whether or not the fire was arson."