Benjie Sanders / Arizona Daily Star via AP
Lewis Taylor shakes hands with his first attorney from 1972, Howard Kashman, as his current defense team surrounds him after a hearing in Pima County Superior Court in Tucson, Ariz., on Tuesday April 2.
An Arizona man who has maintained for 42 years that he had nothing to do with a horrific hotel fire that killed more than two dozen people pleaded no contest Tuesday in a deal that set aside his original conviction and freed him from prison.
"Welcome back, Mr. Taylor," Tucson Superior Court Judge Richard Fields said after accepting 59-year-old Louis Cuen Taylor's plea on Tuesday, reported The Arizona Daily Star. The plea deal gives him credit for time already served.
"It feels good to just feel Mother Earth underneath my feet, free Mother Earth," Taylor said as he walked out of prison later in the day, The Arizona Republic reported.
Taylor was just 16 years old when he was sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences for a fire that ripped through the Pioneer Hotel, a Tucson landmark that went up in flames in December 1970 while employees of an aircraft company were there for a Christmas party.
The only person to speak on behalf of the hotel victims on Tuesday was Paul D'Hedouville II, whose father was killed when he was 4.
"Mr. Taylor, I stand in front of you today to say I harbor no feeling of ill will or grievance against you," D'Hedouville said, according to The Daily Star. "Do not waste your new beginning at life."
Taylor, who is black, claims police pinned the crime on him and an all-white jury gave him an unfair trial. A 2002 examination of his case by CBS' "60 Minutes" found evidence that he had been railroaded and led volunteer legal group The Arizona Justice Project to take on his case.
The blaze killed 29 people: Some jumped to their deaths, others were trapped in their rooms because fire truck ladders weren't long enough to reach upper floors, but most victims died from carbon-monoxide poisoning inside the hotel.
Will Seberger / Zuma Press
Louis Cuen Taylor leaves state prison in Tucson, Ariz., on Tuesday, April 2, after having served 42 years.
Taylor had been sentenced to 28 consecutive life sentences — one for each murder count leveled against him. The twenty-ninth victim died months later from injuries he got in the fire; Taylor was never charged in that victim's death. He didn't show any visible reaction on Tuesday as he accepted the plea deal, The Associated Press reported.
He had been at the hotel that night because he was trying to score some free food and drinks from the Christmas revelers, according to "60 Minutes." Once the fire broke out, police officers and rescue teams asked Taylor to bang on doors and help injured guests get out. Hours later, he was blamed for setting the blaze.
Taylor was interrogated without a lawyer present. The lead fire investigator on the case, Cy Holmes, determined in 1970 that the cause of the fire was arson.
In the "60 Minutes" investigation, Arizona Justice Project lawyers said newer fire techniques found that the cause of the fire was "undetermined" — that there was no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it had been arson.
Holmes, the lead fire investigator, admitted in a 2002 deposition that his profile of potential suspects included race.
"He's probably a negro, and he's probably 18," he said he told the City Council after the fire, based on years of experience he had investigating arson cases.
Holmes, now 83, told The Associated Press on Monday he still stands by his determination that the fire was arson.
"There's no question about it," he said. He added that the new findings by Taylor's defense experts are based on incomplete information because a lot of the evidence was destroyed. "They didn't spend two full days digging through that place."
Taylor has always maintained his innocence, and he struggled with the decision to plead no contest on Tuesday, an agreement he reached with prosecutors.
"He initially rejected it," Arizona Justice Project Executive Co-director Katie Puzauskas said, reported The Daily Star.
His plea in a Tucson courtroom came before relatives of some of the victims, reported The Daily Star.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Tue Apr 2, 2013 10:25 AM EDT