Fate of imprisoned Modesto landlord remains uncertain

jnsbranti@modbee.comMay 2, 2013 

George Souliotes

George Souliotes,

UNKNOWN — Audrey Redman

Prosecutors have not decided whether to retry George Souliotes or appeal a federal judge's order to free him.

The Modesto landlord has been imprisoned for 16 years after being convicted of starting a house fire that killed three people. Much of the evidence used to convict him, however, has been debunked by modern science, and arson may not have caused the 1997 blaze after all.

A federal court threw out Souliotes' conviction last month and ordered him released by May 12, unless Stanislaus County and state prosecutors appeal the ruling. Souliotes, a 72-year-old Greek immigrant, remains locked in a maximum security prison near Salinas.

The district attorney's office had indicated that a decision about whether to retry Souliotes would be made by early this week, but nothing has been announced.

Prosecutors still are reviewing options, California attorney general's office spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill said Wednesday afternoon.

"We have until May 10 to decide," Gledhill explained.

That may be the legal limit for how much longer Souliotes can be held, but his defense lawyers wonder why prosecutors are prolonging the process.

"The attorney general's office has been simply unwilling to accept that mistakes were made. It does not seem to be in the pursuit of justice," insisted Jimmy McBirney, who is representing Souliotes along with lawyers from the Northern California Innocence Project.

Souliotes always has maintained his innocence and has been fighting his conviction for 13 years.

His defenders say they've had scientific proof since 2005 that the key chemical evidence linking him to the fire was wrong, but it took years before they were allowed to present that in court.

"The AG has fought us tooth and nail on every procedural issue possible," McBirney said. "That has dragged this litigation out for years."

Even if state Attorney General Kamala Harris decides to again appeal the federal court's decision, McBirney said he believes Souliotes will be released this month. He doesn't think the federal judge will allow the state to keep Souliotes behind bars while yet another legal battle is waged.

If he is freed, McBirney said Sou-liotes will move into his sister's home in Los Angeles County.

Before the 1997 fire, Souliotes owned three Modesto homes and had significant assets, but he spent all he had on his failed defense.

After the criminal conviction, Daniel Jones — whose wife, Michelle Jones, and children, Daniel Jr. and Amanda, died in that fire — sued Souliotes in civil court.

Jones told The Bee he was awarded a $5 million judgment, but "I haven't seen one dime of it."

If the criminal case is not retried and the exoneration stands, Sou-

liotes might be eligible to collect restitution from the state for his wrongful conviction. The limit on such an award is $100 for every day he was in state prison. That would total more than $400,000.

If prosecutors decide to retry him, Souliotes might remain behind bars during the trial. The federal judge has ordered such a trial to begin by July.

Souliotes was arrested the day of the fire, Jan. 15, 1997. He was denied bail and has been locked up since.

"We think there should be more public outcry about this case," said McBirney, whose Orrick law firm has donated its legal services to exonerate Souliotes.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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