Man convicted in Pioneer Hotel fire deaths, Louis Taylor, now a free man after 40 years

Man convicted of Ariz. hotel fire freed
In 1970, a fire swept through a historic hotel in Tucson, Ariz., killing 28 people. The fire was blamed on 16-year-old Louis Taylor. But after two "60 Minutes" reports, Louis was poised to be released from prison after entering a "no contest" plea. Michelle Miller reports.

(CBS News) Louis Taylor is having a different kind of Wednesday. It's his first full day of freedom after more than 40 years behind bars.

He was convicted of killing 28 people who died in a Tucson, Ariz., hotel fire in 1970. But Taylor always insisted he didn't do it.

"60 Minutes": Arizona's Pioneer Hotel fire re-examined

Taylor will celebrate his 59th birthday this week a free man. But with his freedom, there's a catch -- prosecutors insisted he plead "no contest" to 28 counts of murder -- to crimes he insists he did not commit.

Judge Richard Fields released Taylor with time served on Tuesday. He served nearly 15,000 days -- more than 40 years.

The fire at the Pioneer Hotel in was declared an arson even before it was put out. And police, who first thought the 16-year-old Taylor a hero for banging on doors that night, quickly settled on him as their prime suspect.

A decade ago, "60 Minutes" examined the case, raising issues about how the investigation was conducted and questioning Taylor's guilt.  A report on last Sunday's broadcast looked at whether racism may have played a part in his conviction and revealed that experts, employing modern forensics, concluded the fatal fire may not even have been caused by arson.

"60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft first brought attention to Taylor's story in 2002. When he recently caught up with the current prosecutor, she held her ground.

Kroft asked, "But you've got somebody who's in prison for arson and murder and now it's not clear whether it was even an arson."

Prosecuting attorney Barbara LaWall said, "Well, nobody can say for sure whether it was or whether it wasn't."

And prosecutors insist Tuesday's release was not a victory for Taylor. "This is not an exoneraton," LaWall said. "Louis Taylor was found guilty by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt."

But Taylor sees it differently. He said, "It's a tale of two tragedies, you know the Pioneer Hotel fire, and me, getting convicted for it."

Watch Bill Whitaker's full report in the video above.

Taylor chose "freedom over justice," Kroft said Wednesday on "CBS This Morning."

Kroft remarked, "I think when we were out there doing this latest story, that was his plan -- he was not going to accept a plea. And I think the closer it got to it -- it was his first opportunity to get out without admitting guilt. This is somebody who had been invited to present before the clemency board and testified 'I'm not going to express remorse for a crime I didn't commit. Through nine hours of interrogation and 40 years in jail, he's always denied that he did this, and I think -- I don't think he had much faith in the Arizona justice system going forward."

For more on the case, as well as advances in arson investigation, watch Kroft's full "CTM" interview in the player below.

Kroft said Taylor "really wanted to get out" and has taken lots of courses while behind bars. "He's actually qualified to do a number of different things," Kroft said. "He may even have a college degree by now. I'm not sure. He says he does, but we couldn't get the records. The records weren't in the system."

Prison, Kroft said, has done "nothing good," for Taylor. "I talked to him about the prison experience, but his lawyer told us that, 'Look, you're a different person when you come out after spending 42 years in prison.' I think it hardens you up. But, you know, I certainly wish him all the luck."