TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The man convicted of starting the deadly Pioneer Fire in 1970 made a plea deal this morning, resulting in his release later in the day.
Louis Taylor pleaded no contest in Superior Court.
Superior Court Judge Richard Fields accepted Taylor's plea and credited him for time served.
People were lined two- and three-deep in the courtroom, which became silent when Taylor entered, dressed in prison orange. He looked around and seemed to enjoy the fact that there were so many people in attendance.
He shook hands with his attorney from 1972, Howard Kashman. Kashman was not part of this deal worked out by the Arizona Justice Project.
Taylor was flanked by a battery of defense lawyers who have worked for the past ten years to prove his innocence.
A son of one of the victims read a five-page statement at the beginning of the hearing, saying he bore no ill will toward Taylor.
After the hearing, other lawyers said this proves the system works, even though it works slowly sometimes.
Taylor was taken from the Pima County Courthouse to the prison on Wilmot, where he as processed out – a free man.
Before Taylor left the courtroom, Judge Fields said, "Welcome back, Mr. Taylor."
Taylor will be released to the Justice Project and is scheduled to talk to the media tomorrow in Phoenix.
Taylor was originally sentenced to 28 consecutive life sentences in the December 1970 fire. 29 people died in the fire.
Taylor contends he was wrongly convicted. The U.S. Supreme Court denied him a new trial in 1983.
The Arizona Justice Project sought dismissal of the case or an evidentiary hearing last year, noting several experts could testify it was indeterminable whether the fire was arson. The lead fire investigator on the case stands by his findings.
After today's hearing, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said, "We cannot forget the victims."
"This was not an exoneration," she said.