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Louis Taylor: 'Persevered through grace of God'

Freed after 42 years behind bars, Taylor still maintains innocence in the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire

An emotional Louis Taylor maintained his innocence while explaining his decision to plead no contest in the 1970 Hotel Pioneer fire the day after a hearing before Arizona Judge Richard Fields set him free after 42 years behind bars.

"I wasn't going to let 'em take another minute, another hour, another decade from me for something I didn't do," Taylor said. "I'm fortunate to be here, it's kind of overwhelming."

Free for less than 24 hours, Taylor described how he spent his first hours after the hearing going to In-N-Out Burger, hiking in Sabino Canyon and making friends with a Bichon Frise.

"I couldn't sleep," Taylor said. "I stayed up and took the prison blues off and started detoxing from DOC. I threw away the rags they gave me and I took a shower and put on some clothes, some clean clothes."

Taylor spoke to reporters Wednesday at a morning press conference in Phoenix, and then again in the afternoon in Tucson.

Taylor pleaded no contest Tuesday to 28 counts of felony murder in the 1970 blaze as part of a deal freed him after 42 years behind bars. Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall told a judge Monday that with a retrial impossible, he should accept a deal in the case.

"They did a bad thing," Taylor said. "The [Pima] county attorney didn't want to do the honorable thing by curing the injustice."

Louis was just 16 years old when he was sent to prison after a trial tainted with racism. An African American, he was found guilty by an all-white jury. In the years since, questions have been raised about whether he was responsible for setting the fire, which killed 29 people.

After years of work by the Arizona Justice Project, Taylor was free Tuesday as part of the plea deal. His original life sentence was set aside Tuesday morning, and he was sentenced instead to the time he has already served.

"I'm really grateful for my team, I have an amazing team," Taylor said.

Several months ago Taylor’s team of lawyers asked for a new trial, saying they had gained evidence proving the fire wasn’t caused by arson. They also argued that jury tampering, evidence tampering and racism played in a role in the all-white jury’s conviction of Taylor, who is black.

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall asked the Tucson Fire Department to re-examine the case, and the department concluded the cause of the fire couldn’t be determined based on the evidence available today.

LaWall said that finding in addition to the fact that most of the witnesses have died would make it extraordinarily difficult to re-convict Taylor. Though she said the evidence in Taylor’s trial met the burden of proof, she agreed to the deal.

Taylor’s lawyers said the no-contest plea would make it difficult, though not impossible, for him to file a lawsuit against the county in order to get financial compensation for the time he spent behind bars.

Taylor said doesn’t believe that any flaw in the justice system led to his conviction.

“I should have never fallen through the cracks,” he said. “I don’t know how I did.”

Taylor said he forgives the county attorney and others involved in his sentence so that he can focus on the future. He said said he’s not interested in seeking compensation from the government.

"You can't make up for 42 years, you just gotta move forward," Taylor said. "It's just through the grace of God that I persevered through such adversity."

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A lot has changed since a then 16-year-old Taylor was arrested.

"They had only 8-tracks in 1970 and we had to dial with a finger on the phone; it's amazing the technology they have now," Taylor said.

He's also lost family members, including his twin sister, Mary Louis, and his mother — both died while he was behind bars.

And there are new family members he'd never met, such as his niece Melissa Brown, who came to the press conference for a chance to meet her uncle for the first time.

With the conviction still on his record, one of Taylor's greatest challenges will be finding a job, said Osborn Maledon lawyer Larry A. Hammond.

"It's as new for him as it is for us, frankly," Hammond said. "He's kept his emotions in check and I think I've talked to him probably almost every two weeks for 13 or 14 years almost always by telephone - he's like Charlie on the NBA, he's been in almost every place in the state at one time or another."

"I'm optimistic today," Hammond said. "I'm optimistic about Louis and what he's done."

Taylor said he's thinking positively about the future too.

"I think I'm going to be alright."

Taylor said his plans for the future remain uncertain. Although he said he’s already received a job offer from a Tucson lawyer, he won't be taking that offer — at least not yet. 

For now he said he’s focusing on “detoxing from DOC (Department of Corrections).”

Though he said he loves Tucson, Taylor said isn’t necessarily willing to move back. He plans to live in Phoenix and seek work. He vowed to his sister that he'd stay away from Tucson for a while, he said.

Taylor broke into tears throughout the news conferences as he spoke about the night more than four decades ago that changed his life forever.

“It’s a tale of two tragedies, man,” he said. “The 29 poor souls that lost their lives there – and my conviction.”

Rebekah Zemansky reported from Phoenix, Dylan Smith from Tucson. Cronkite News Service’s Lauren Saria contributed to this report from Phoenix.

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2 comments on this story

Apr 3, 2013, 7:03 pm
-2 +1

Why is it that the trial was “tainted with racism” simply because there was an all white jury?  How does that make those jurors racist?  You cite no other evidence to show racism and that’s a very inflammatory statement. And why is it that the county attorney did a “bad thing” by agreeing to let him out?  I’ve read the trial transcripts and there was significant evidence to show his guilt that the jury heard.  The decision to let him be released came about because of possible doubts at this point, not because he didn’t commit the crime.  It’s too easy to throw around accusations of racism with no evidence, but it doesn’t make it true.

Apr 3, 2013, 2:52 pm
-0 +0

1978 Hotel Pioneer fire

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Taylor spoke to reporters in Tucson on Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by his legal team.

Taylor Case Timeline

  • Dec. 20, 1970 - Pioneer Hotel fire, Louis Taylor is arrested
  • Feb. 9 - March 21, 1972 - trial
  • March 28, 1972 - Taylor sentenced to life imprisonment
  • July 8, 1975 - Arizona Supreme Court affirms conviction
  • Feb. 18, 1977 - Arizona Federal District Court denies petition for habeas corpus
  • July 3, 1978 - Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacates conviction, remands to Arizona Federal District Court
  • May 18, 1981 - Arizona Federal District Court again denies habeas corpus
  • June 7, 1982 - Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals again vacates conviction and remands
  • May 23, 1983 - United States Supreme Court reverses Ninth Circuit and affirms conviction
  • Oct. 23, 2012 - petition for Post-Conviction relief filed on basis that Taylor is innocent
  • Jan. 2013 - Pima County Attorney's Office offers to resolve case
  • April 2, 2013 - hearing before Judge Richard Fields, Taylor is released