More than 100 pairs of eyes were on Louis Cuen Taylor Tuesday morning as he walked tentatively into the courtroom wearing an orange prison-issue T-shirt and baggy pants.
He sat at the defendant's table, eyes averted, arms folded tightly against his chest, surrounded by a cadre of lawyers - members of the Arizona Justice Project team - who worked for more than a decade to secure the Tucson native's release from prison.
Forty-two years ago, a Phoenix jury found Taylor guilty on 28 counts of murder stemming from the Pioneer Hotel fire in Tucson. A 29th person died months later.
On Tuesday, just as on the day Taylor was sentenced, a judge read the name of each victim who died in the Dec. 20, 1970, blaze. This time, though, Taylor, 58, was given the option to enter a plea on each count. As Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard Fields read name after name, Taylor stood before him and responded: "No contest."
"Welcome back, Mr. Taylor," Fields said after accepting Taylor's pleas. Fields gave Taylor credit for time served and ordered him released from prison.
Kin of those who died in the Pioneer Hotel fire, as well as some survivors, a dozen in all, sat in the front row during the standing-room-only hearing. Only one man, Paul d'Hedouville II, whose 31-year-old father died in the fire, asked to address the judge.
"Mr. Taylor, ... I harbor no feeling of ill will or vengeance against you," said d'Hedouville, who flew to Tucson from Washington, D.C., for the hearing.
His father, an attorney, was working on a trial in Tucson. His wife and two young sons were planning to fly into town for the holidays. Instead, his family buried the husband and father on Christmas Eve.
D'Hedouville told the courtroom that he, like his father, had a great respect for the American system of justice; a system that worked both to convict and eventually free Taylor.
"Do as you choose Mr. Taylor, but choose wisely," d'Hedouville said. "Do not waste your new beginning at life."
At a news conference after Taylor's hearing, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall explained the decision to offer the plea agreement.
Earlier this year, Justice Project attorneys filed a motion for a new trial citing advancements in fire investigations, LaWall said. Had a judge granted the new trial, it would have been difficult for county prosecutors to get a conviction because witnesses have died and the physical evidence is missing.
Some of the evidence was destroyed, and some was given to attorneys involved in civil suits against the hotel and the company that manufactured carpeting for the Pioneer.
In addition, the defense team had experts in modern forensic fire science evaluate the case and agree to testify that they would not have ruled the blaze arson. Even an investigator with the Tucson Fire Department who reviewed the available evidence was not able to determine what caused the fire.
"We concluded that justice would best be served in light of unique facts of this particular case by allowing Louis Taylor to plead no contest at this time, whereupon the court then could affirm his guilt and then he would receive time served in this case of 42 years," LaWall said. "This is not an exoneration."
The Pima County Attorney's Office stands by the original conviction, that Taylor is responsible for the fire.
"We felt that the conviction was righteous, that it would be unfair for Mr. Taylor to simply walk away without that conviction, that it was important to have that conviction for the victims who survived and for the community to know that yes, the right person was convicted," Deputy Pima County Attorney Rick Unklesbay said.
After the hearing, Taylor was taken back to a state correction facility to await the final orders from the judge for his release.
At 3 p.m., after living almost 15,000 days behind bars, Taylor walked into the parking lot of the Arizona State Prison Complex on South Wilmot Road, where he was greeted by his attorneys with applause and hugs.
At the entrance to the prison, Taylor said a few words before leaving with his attorneys.
"It feels good to feel free Mother Earth beneath my feet," he said.
Taylor's first stop after leaving prison was for lunch at In-n-Out Burger. Between bites of his cheeseburger, Taylor talked about how he spent his night before the hearing.
"I started detoxing, drinking a lot of water, getting the DOC out of my system," he joked with his supporters about the Department of Corrections. "I thought I couldn't sleep, but I worked out a little bit and fell asleep."
Taylor spent Tuesday night in Tucson.
After a Wednesday afternoon press conference with his attorneys, Taylor plans to settle in the Phoenix area, where he will participate in a re-entry program for former inmates.
On StarNet: View more photos of Louis Taylor and the Pioneer Hotel fire at azstarnet.com/gallery
"We concluded that justice would best be served in light of unique facts of this particular case by allowing Louis Taylor to plead no contest at this time whereupon the court then could affirm his guilt and then he would receive time served in this case of 42 years. This is not an exoneration."
Barbara LaWall, Pima County attorney
Note: Reporter Kimberly Matas has been researching the Pioneer Hotel story for several years as part of an independent book project. Contact her at email@example.com or at 573-4191.