By Brad Poole
TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - An Arizona man was set free on Tuesday after serving four decades for murder in connection with a 1970 hotel fire that killed 29 people, after new evidence emerged throwing his conviction into question.
"It's good to feel Mother Earth under my feet again," Louis Taylor, 58, told reporters seconds after leaving the prison grounds in a car with members of his legal defense team.
Taylor was freed after a Pima County Superior Court judge agreed there was sufficient evidence to grant a new trial.
During the same hearing, Taylor pleaded "no contest" to each of 28 counts of murder and accepted a plea agreement in which he would not admit guilt.
He was immediately sentenced to time served and agreed to seek no compensation for his time behind bars. He will not be required to pay restitution.
Paul D'Hedouville II, whose father, Paul D'Hedouville, died in the fire, read a statement to the court. He listed a few life moments his father - a 31-year-old attorney in 1970 - missed over the years. There were Christmases, anniversaries and weddings, soccer games, trips to the beach and camping trips, D'Hedouville said, at times choking back tears.
"He was never able to go to Ireland to meet my future bride," he said.
D'Hedouville, who flew in from Washington, D.C. for the hearing, harbors no ill will toward Taylor and observed that the man convicted of his father's murder can now do as he wants.
"Do as you choose, Mr. Taylor, but choose wisely. Do not waste your new beginning," he told Taylor, who was listening from his defense table wearing orange prison garb and shackles.
Taylor was 16 when the Pioneer Hotel fire broke out just after midnight on December 20, 1970. His accounts of why he went to the Tucson hotel vary, but he eventually admitted to putting on a bus-boy's smock to try to steal drinks from a Hughes Aircraft company Christmas party.
DOUBTS AROSE QUICKLY
Hundreds of people were gathered for the party, and the hotel was packed with visitors from Mexico in town for Christmas shopping. The fire started on the third floor of the 14-story building and quickly spread upward through a stairwell, trapping people above the blaze. Some victims jumped to their deaths from the building to escape flames.
Twenty-eight people died that night from burns or smoke inhalation, and one died months later from injuries sustained in the fire.
Taylor was arrested within hours of the fire and lied to investigators about seeing others starting the fire. He gave conflicting accounts of what he saw, and he admitted to investigators that he had a history of starting fires.
Taylor was eventually convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison.
Doubts arose quickly about the conviction, with some observers saying the all-white jury made a racist decision about Taylor, who is black. In recent years, lawyers for the Arizona Justice Project took up the cause, calling for a new trial.
A Tucson Fire Department examination of the evidence earlier this year concluded that the origin of the fire would be deemed "undetermined" using current technology and techniques. That report was key to the request for a new trial. Judge Richard S. Fields on Tuesday agreed a new trial was warranted.
Taylor planned to spend his first night of freedom with Kristina Beckman-Britco, a volunteer for the ADP who became his friend while he was in prison. He has requested only bacon and ice cream, she said through tears as she watched Taylor get into a car to ride to freedom.
"I want to make sure he wakes up to the smell of bacon," she said.
(This story corrects name of Arizona Justice Project, paragraph 15 in April 2 story)
(Reporting by Brad Poole; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Todd Eastham)