Jardine: Landlord seeks third trial in murders

June 6, 2010 

If you've ever attended a criminal trial, you know the routine.

The prosecution calls witnesses and then the defense attorney tries to bash their credibility to smithereens during cross-examination.

When the defense calls its witnesses, the prosecution tries to do the same.

After both sides have presented their cases, the jury discusses which had the most believable witnesses and facts, and then renders its verdict.

In 2000, Modesto landlord George Apostos Souliotes stood trial for the second time, charged with murdering three tenants -- 30-year-old mother Michelle Jones, 6-year-old son Daniel Jr. and 3½-year-old daughter Amanda -- by torching his rental home in northwest Modesto. During both trials, the defense pounded away at the testimonies of Modesto fire investigators Capt. Thomas Reuscher and Capt. Bob Evers.

Souliotes' first trial ended in a mistrial with the jury deadlocked 11-1 for conviction.

During the retrial, his defense team used the high-risk tactic of not calling any witnesses, stating simply that the prosecution had failed to make its case for conviction.

The jury found Souliotes guilty and recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has been in prison ever since.

After two other courts refused to hear his appeals, attorneys representing Souliotes in February asked a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th District to grant him a new trial. The panel may issue its opinion soon. A team from the Santa Clara University-based Northern California Innocence Project took aim at the testimony and work of Reuscher and Evers.

During the first trial, Souliotes hired an expert witness, John Lentini of Florida, who questioned the investigators' findings that showed a flammable liquid residue on the floor of the home matched what they found on Souliotes' shoes.

LA Times story renews dissent

The Los Angeles Times last week published a story about the case, detailing how Souliotes' sister has spent the past decade championing her brother's claims of innocence, just as family members did through both trials in Modesto. The story left Reuscher and Dave Harris, the Stanislaus County chief deputy district attorney who prosecuted Souliotes, bristling.

Contacted for the story, Lentini told the Times the Modesto investigators used outdated science to determine the fire's origin and new science would have debunked their conclusions.

Souliotes' attorneys also questioned the credibility of a woman who testified at both trials that she saw someone approach the rental home shortly before the fire began, and later identified Souliotes as that person.

Expert witnesses are always interesting because they don't necessarily need to refute or contradict other witnesses. They often are paid to create a measure of uncertainty, enough to justify reasonable doubt. There's only one problem with expert witnesses in a case like this: They usually cannot testify about the crime scene because they weren't there and didn't get to see what the investigators did. They can only question the investigators' methods based upon their reports and testimony.

Lentini's résumé is impressive. His Web site lists 11½ pages of education, training, certifications and more than 200 court appearances for prosecutors and defense lawyers. But it's missing one element that most fire investigators claim: experience fighting fires.

I called an old acquaintance, Marty Galindo, who is a retired fire and arson investigator for the Stockton Fire Department. He testified in scores of cases during his 17 years as an investigator. Experience in fighting fires and checking the aftermath is invaluable, he said, and something you can't recreate in a classroom or laboratory.

"When you come up through the ranks, which most investigators do, you get a wealth of knowledge from the fires you're suppressing," Galindo said. "Cleaning up after fires, you're looking at how it burned. If you started your career at the end of a hose, you've got that wealth of experience. Nobody can come in off the street and do what you do."

Lentini, in the Times piece, suggested that Reuscher and Evers ignored new science published by the National Fire Protection Association in 1992, five years before the 1997 fire and subsequent investigation. Burn patterns the investigators used to determine arson could also happen in an accidental fire, Lentini told the Times.

Countered Reuscher: "Nothing new here. It was known at the time that deep char and burn holes in the floor do not necessarily mean arson, but coupled with the discovery of medium petroleum distillates and other evidence it certainly does."

The former Modesto fire investigator pointed out that an expert witness from the first trial helped write the NFPA manual to which Lentini refers.

"One of the most pre-eminent fire scientists of that time and still today, Dr. John DeHaan, testified in Mr. Souliotes's trial, and he testified for the prosecution," Reuscher said via e-mail.

Since 1982, DeHaan has written five editions of Kirk's Fire Investigation, the most widely used textbook of its genre. He served on the committee that updated the association's manual in 1992.

The arson evidence was just one piece of the prosecution's case against Souliotes. Harris succeeded in convincing jurors that Souliotes had motives -- financial and wanting to evict the tenant family -- and the temperament to torch the home. His counterpart, defense attorney Tim Rien, couldn't convince them the fire started accidentally because of a leaky gas stove.

Expert witness dismissed gas fire

An expert witness for the prosecution took care of that.

"During the first trial, an arson expert from (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) -- who was an expert on natural gas fires -- showed the jury a video of a natural gas fire and testified why this was an arson fire and not a natural gas fire," Harris said in an e-mail, adding he could discuss only what had been made public.

Now the three judges from the appeals court are mulling over whether Souliotes should get a third trial.

Souliotes' family has long maintained he was the case's fourth victim -- a man wrongly convicted.

Reuscher, Harris and others involved in the case disagree.

"Sadly, Michelle, Daniel and Amanda Jones are dead," Reuscher said. "George Souliotes is still in jail where he belongs. I stand by my testimony and findings."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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