State fights ruling in favor of Modesto landlord Souliotes

jnsbranti@modbee.comMay 7, 2013 

— While Stanislaus County prosecutors hurriedly prepare to retry George Souliotes, state attorneys have appealed the federal judge's decision that overturned his murder and arson conviction from 2000.

Depending upon the outcome, that appeal could delay or cancel the new trial. But Souliotes' all-volunteer defense team continues to fight for his exoneration, insisting that he is an innocent man.

Souliotes was transferred Tuesday from Salinas Valley State Prison to a Stanislaus County jail cell, where he is being held without bail.

Prosecutors said they consider him a flight risk, in part because the Greek immigrant is not a U.S. citizen.

He will be in Stanislaus County Superior Court on Friday, when he is expected to be assigned an attorney and told when the retrial will begin.

A federal judge last month threw out Souliotes' conviction for setting his Modesto rental home on fire in 1997 and killing his tenants — a mother and her two young children. The judge ordered prosecutors to start his new trial by July 10 or set him free.

There's a lot to do before then.

Souliotes spent all his money on his defense the first time around and, after 16 years behind bars, is indigent.

Taxpayers are expected to pay for his attorneys this time, but the county's public defender hadn't been assigned the case as of Tuesday.

"As far as I know, we have not been appointed to represent him," Public Defender Tim Bazar said. Bazar said his office previously may have represented one of the witnesses in the Souliotes case, and such a conflict could prevent it from accepting Souliotes as a client.

May be a scramble

Getting an adequate defense together so quickly may be tough to do, Bazar said, because his public defenders are busy with other cases. He didn't know who could take on such a big murder trial on such short notice.

District Attorney Birgit Fladager announced Monday that she would retry Souliotes rather than set him free, and she has assigned her chief deputy, Dave Harris, to run the prosecution.

Harris also was the prosecutor in 2000 when jurors found Souliotes guilty of setting the Ronald Avenue house fire that killed Michelle Jones, 30, and her children, Amanda, 3, and Daniel Jr., 6.

Appealing since 2000

Souliotes has been appealing that conviction ever since, first through the state legal system and then through federal courts.

"It is very rare for a federal judge to step in and overturn a state conviction," Bazar said.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris contends that the federal judge's ruling was wrong. Her staff has filed a motion seeking a stay, which if granted means Souliotes wouldn't get a new trial until she has time to appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

There are numerous issues being contested by attorneys.

Souliotes' defenders contend that there's no substantial evidence that he set the fatal fire. They note how modern fire science has discounted much of the evidence originally used to determine the blaze was set by an arsonist who poured a flammable liquid inside the home.

A chemical link between Souliotes' shoes and the fire scene also has been disproved by modern testing methods.

Souliotes' appeals team convinced two federal judges of his "actual innocence." Those judges also ruled that Souliotes didn't get an adequate defense at his Stanislaus trial, so he deserves a new one.

The attorney general disagrees with those judges on many issues. "While the prosecution's experts relied on some factors that are no longer accepted as proof of arson, considerable evidence — both physical and circumstantial — continues to support the conviction," the attorney general's appeal states. "Even without the testimony regarding pour patterns and deep charring, the evidence of arson is substantial."

The attorney general said Souliotes shouldn't get a new trial because he has not proved "the fire was not or could not have been the result of arson. On the contrary, the experts agreed that today they cannot tell how the fire began — so they cannot rule out either accident or arson.

"For example, Souliotes' new evidence does not explain why the firewall between the garage and the living room remained intact or why the fire quickly consumed separate portions of the house that were divided by that firewall."

State: No alibi

The attorney general argues that Souliotes "has no alibi; the eyewitness has not recanted; and he has not shown that the crimes were perpetrated by someone else."

Souliotes, who lived alone at the time, said he was in bed sleeping when the fire broke out in the middle of the night.

Two federal judges did not believe eyewitness Monica Sandoval's account of what happened that night, noting that there were "many uncertainties, contradictions, and inconsistencies in her testimony and in the various reports of it."

Sandoval had testified that she watched a recreational vehicle, similar to one Souliotes owned, repeatedly drive past the Ronald Avenue home before the fire. She said she saw that vehicle stop, and a person carrying a large bundle got out and went behind the home. A short time later, the person got back into the RV and drove away.

"Within minutes, the house, which belonged to George Souliotes, went up in flames," the attorney general's appeal notes. "The eyewitness did not recant, and no new witnesses have come forward to contradict or discredit her testimony."

Souliotes had been renting the home to the Jones family, but the rent had not been paid and he was in the process of having the family legally evicted.

Fladager said she will seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, which is the same sentence imposed after Souliotes' earlier conviction.

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

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