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Man convicted in fatal Tucson hotel fire: ‘You just have to move on’

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PHOENIX – Freed after spending 42 years in prison, the man convicted of starting a 1970 hotel fire that killed 29 people in Tucson said he’s not interested in seeking compensation from the government.

“You can’t make up for 42 years,” Louis Taylor said at a news conference Wednesday. “You just have to move on.”

He said he spent his first hours as a free man at In-N-Out Burger with members of his legal team.

After volunteer attorneys and a “60 Minutes” report raised questions about the case against him, Taylor pleaded no contest Tuesday to 28 counts of felony murder. He received credit for time served and was released shortly afterward.

Taylor was 16 when convicted of setting fire to the 11-story Pioneer Hotel in downtown Tucson. Sentenced to life in prison, he never stopped asserting his innocence.

He said he had no choice but to accept the deal that set him free, even though it means he still stands convicted.

“I wasn’t going to give them another hour, another minute,” Taylor said.

According to the “60 Minutes” account, rescue crews asked Taylor to help alert hotel guests of the fire by banging on doors. Taylor said he carried several people out of the building. He didn’t become a suspect until later, when authorities reported finding five books of matches in his possession.

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 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 his plans for the future remain uncertain, though he said he’s already received a job offer from a Tucson lawyer. Though he said he loves Tucson, Taylor said isn’t necessarily willing to move back.

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

So far, that’s meant everything from adjusting to the switch from 8-tracks to CDs to learning how to use a cellphone.

Taylor broke into tears throughout the news conference 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.”