JARDINE: 1997 fire tragedy has its share of what ifs

jjardine@modbee.comApril 27, 2013 

— Virtually every event or story comes with "what ifs?"

What if this or that had happened a bit differently along the way, altering or saving lives or preventing even greater tragedies?

Earlier this month, a federal court judge overturned the case against George Apostos Souliotes. He's the Modesto landlord convicted of starting the fire that killed a mother and her two young children on Jan. 15, 1997.

Police arrested Souliotes later that same day and he's been in jail or prison ever since.

Now, the fire science that prosecutors used to convict Souliotes in 2000 has been refuted by more advanced technology. And the judge determined that crucial tactical errors Souliotes' attorney made prevented his client from being acquitted in the second of two trials (the first ending in mistrial in 1999).

Consequently, Souliotes soon could be out of prison unless the state attorney general appeals the decision, or Stanislaus County's district attorney decides to retry the case. To win again, prosecutors would need to somehow prove what the new science denies — that the fire was, indeed, arson.

The Souliotes case, like every other, had its share of tragic "what ifs?" None of them could be deemed as a stretch.

• What if the Pineapple Express storm of late December 1996 struck a week or two later?

The Joneses had fallen behind on their rent to Souliotes, who began eviction proceedings against them. By early January 1997, the Joneses had paid $500 for a mobile home in one of the trailer parks on River Road along the Tuolumne River. They expected to soon be out of the Ronald Avenue rental home. Instead, the warm storm melted off a heavy early December snowfall in the Sierra. Lake Don Pedro spilled for the first time since the new dam was built in the 1970s. The New Year's flooding of 1997 damaged the Joneses' mobile home, so they stayed in Souliotes' rental longer than planned.

Yes, they would have been flooded out at some point. But a family can replace a home and belongings. Daniel Jones can never replace the wife and two children he lost in the fire.

• What if a clerk had accurately listed the rental property's address on the eviction documents? This, from the federal court decision:

"The Joneses were scheduled to be locked out of the rental property on January 16, 1997. However, on January 13, 1997, the sheriff's office advised Petitioner's eviction agency that the writ of execution erroneously referenced Ronald 'Street' rather than Ronald 'Avenue.' When told it likely would take a week to correct the error, Petitioner (Souliotes) was upset, although not extraordinarily so. The eviction agency also was frustrated with the Sheriff's refusal to overlook the technical error."

The Joneses would have known they needed to be out before the 16th or be locked out. Instead, they got a presumed extra week to find new housing after the Tuolumne River rose and flooded their mobile home. The fire happened on the 15th, the eve of their original eviction date.

• And finally, what if Souliotes' attorney, Timothy Rien, had staged a defense in the 2000 trial similar to the one he presented during the first trial? He called several witnesses, including a fire science expert, in the 1999 trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court. It ended in a mistrial, with 11 of 12 jurors favoring conviction.

When the second trial began a year later, Rien opened by promising to call several witness. But after the prosecution rested its case, he and co-counsel Harry Traback did the same. They didn't offer a single witness in Souliotes' defense. Rien merely stated that the prosecution hadn't proved its case and asked for a dismissal, which Judge John E. Griffin Jr. promptly denied.

Why no witnesses?

"We had embarked on an all-or-nothing strategy dictated by Mr. Souliotes' absolute insistence that he was innocent," Rien wrote in a declaration to the federal court. "This position never wavered throughout my two-year association with and representation of him; a position he had maintained with his family and friends and to police investigators. Consequently, there was no middle ground to argue anything but absolute innocence to the jury."

Rien explained that he didn't call the same fire expert he'd used in the first trial because the jurors told him the witness did not communicate well. By not calling the expert, he surmised the prosecution wouldn't call its own fire science expert, whom the jury believed in the first trial.

The strategy backfired. The second jury returned a unanimous verdict to convict.

Yet Rien's decisions ultimately provided the opening that could free Souliotes. New evidence that refutes old evidence or testimony doesn't mandate a new trial. It must also involve some type of judicial error, or error in representation, the latter of which Rien provided.

"Given the cumulative effect of the errors committed by Petitioner's trial counsel, the Court concludes that there is a reasonable probability that, absent the deficiencies, the outcome of Petitioner's trial would have been different," the judge wrote.

The irony is if the lone juror in the first trial had voted to convict, Souliotes' chances of getting out or a new trial might have been dashed.

Of the "what ifs," only the last one remains in play today. A woman and two children are dead, a family destroyed.

And Souliotes, a man who proclaimed his innocence from the day they died, has been deemed "factually innocent." He's been incarcerated from age 56 to 72 — years he can never reclaim.

Another "what if?" to ponder.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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