DA sees 'ample' evidence, will retry Souliotes in Modesto fire deaths

jnsbranti@modbee.comMay 6, 2013 

— Modesto landlord George Souliotes, who has been behind bars for 16 years, will face a new trial in the deaths of his tenant and her two children, Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager announced Monday.

Souliotes was convicted of arson and triple murder in 2000, but a federal judge threw out that conviction last month, ruling that he didn't get a fair trial because his defense was inadequate.

Much of the fire investigation evidence used to link Souliotes to the deadly Jan. 15, 1997, blaze since has been discounted by more modern scientific testing methods and analysis.

But a news release from Fladager said there is "ample admissible evidence" to prove that Souliotes, now 72, started the fire that killed Michelle Jones, 30, and her two children, Amanda, 3, and Daniel Jr., 6. They were asleep in the Ronald Avenue rental home's bedroom.

The fire began in the middle of the night, and Souliotes was arrested later that day in what prosecutors insist was arson and murder. He has been behind bars since.

Souliotes' appeals attorney, Jimmy McBirney, said he is "extremely disappointed" with Fladager's decision. McBirney said Souliotes "was convicted almost entirely based upon flawed scientific evidence that the attorney general (Kamala Harris) has admitted was false, and who a federal magistrate and federal judge have both determined is actually innocent."

'No reasonable basis'

McBirney said Fladager "cannot possibly have meaningfully reviewed the case or the federal court's decision, since there is in fact virtually no meaningful evidence implicating Mr. Souliotes in this fire, ample evidence pointing to his innocence, and no reasonable basis for attempting to retry him."

Daniel Jones, whose wife and children were killed, told The Bee on Monday that "the arson investigation was done (using scientific methods) that were up to date at the time." Jones said he believes Sou- liotes is guilty, and he doesn't want him to go free.

"They need to do something," Jones said when asked about the new trial. "But it's not something I'm looking forward to."

Since Souliotes' conviction in 2000, there have been numerous legal appeals and hearings. In last month's ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii threw out the conviction and ordered Souli-otes be set free or be given a new trial, which he ruled must start by July.

McBirney said retrying Souliotes "will just needlessly delay (him being set free). If there's another trial, he will certainly be exonerated."

McBirney, who works for the Orrick law firm in San Francisco, and volunteer lawyers from the Northern California Innocence Project have been representing Souliotes. They have provided their services at no charge through numerous appeals and legal proceedings.

Two federal judges last year ruled that there is sufficient evidence of Souliotes' "actual innocence," and they determined this spring that he did not receive adequate legal representation during his trial in Stanislaus County.

At the time, prosecutors had assured jurors that there was clear scientific evidence the fire had been intentionally set using a liquid accelerant. They had insisted there was chemical residue on Souliotes' shoes that matched chemicals found in the burned house.

But much of the so-called arson evidence used at Souliotes' trial since has been disproved by more modern testing methods and fire science.

Last year, the state attorney general's office agreed that "factors relied on by (Modesto fire investigators) are now known not to be indicators of arson using a flammable liquid."

The state's attorneys agreed that fire experts "cannot determine the cause and origin of the fire based on the available evidence and record as it exists today, including whether the fire was accidental or the result of arson."

The state last year acknowledged that the substance — called a medium petroleum distillate — found on Souliotes' shoes "is chemically distinguishable from (what) the MPD found on the carpet samples taken from the fire scene, and the MPD's did not originate from a common source."

That supposed chemical link between Souliotes and the fire was a key part of the prosecution's evidence.

"What's so troubling about this case is that the science (Modesto fire investigators used) was so bad, it wasn't even science," said Linda Starr, the Innocence Project's legal director. "There's not a credible expert in the country who will testify this was an arson … and science proves (the chemical on his shoes) doesn't match."

Without evidence of arson or a chemical match, Starr said she doesn't understand how Fladager thinks she can prove Souliotes is guilty. "There's no motive. He had nothing to gain from this," Starr insisted.

Starr said eyewitness Monica Sandoval, who placed Souliotes at the scene, was unbelievable because she could not have seen what she said she saw from where she was.

After one of Souliotes' federal appeals, court records show the judge concluded no reasonable juror would credit Sandoval's identification of Souliotes based on the "many uncertainties, contradictions, and inconsistencies in her testimony and in the various reports of it."

Starr criticized Fladager's news release, which she said implied that Souliotes is getting a new trial because of some sort of legal technicality.

"Although this order does grant a new trial, the basis is only that the attorney was found to be ineffective, not because the evidence of Souliotes' guilt was insufficient, or that Souliotes is innocent," the district attorney's statement says.

DA praises earlier defender

Fladager's statement described Souliotes' original trial lawyer, Timothy Rien, as "one of the area's most competent local defense attorneys" who "made a tactical choice with the express consent of his client" about how to defend him.

Rien, who since has moved to the Bay Area, did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him.

"They act like (Souliotes) has been gaming the system," Starr said of Fladager's statement. "Innocence is not a technicality. … He's an innocent man who's fighting for his life."

Starr said Souliotes, who is in the maximum-security Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, is not in good health. He will be transferred to a Stanislaus County jail for the new trial.

While county prosecutors prepare for that trial, Fladager's statement says the "California attorney general's office believes there is a very good chance that the (federal judge's) order will be reversed, and they are seeking appellate review."

In the months after the January 1997 fire, there was so much publicity in Stanislaus County about Souliotes that a change of venue was ordered. But rather than moving the trial to another county, San Joaquin County residents were selected as jurors and bused to Modesto every day to hear the case.

Venue change unlikely

Fladager said the retrial will be held in Stanislaus County, and a change of venue is unlikely. "The timing of the trial will depend on when a defense attorney can be ready," Fladager wrote in an email to The Bee.

McBirney said Souliotes spent every dime he had defending himself, and after 16 years behind bars, he is indigent. McBirney's expenses have been donated by his Orrick law firm, and the Northern California Innocence Project didn't charge for its services.

"Both Orrick and NCIP remain absolutely committed to securing Mr. Souliotes's long-overdue freedom, and neither of us have any intention of abandoning his case before that is accomplished," McBirney said.

Unless Souliotes can raise funds for his defense, it's likely he'll be represented by the Stanislaus County public defender's office, Fladager said.

If he ultimately is found not guilty, taxpayers may owe Souliotes $100 for every day he was held in state prison. That could total more than $400,000.

His defenders contend that prosecutors needlessly dragged out the appeal process.

"I've heard people say the state is trying to delay things long enough so he would just die in prison," said Paul Bieber, a defense investigator who got involved in Souliotes' case as part of an organization called The Arson Project. "I never thought that was a possibility before, but that theory has a lot more credibility now."

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

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