New Souliotes trial is the best option

May 8, 2013 

George Souliotes

George Souliotes and his legal team (from left): Orrick Attorney Shannon Leong, NCIP Legal Director Linda Starr, George Souliotes, Orrick Attorney Jimmy McBirney and former Orrick Attorney Megan Crane (Audrey Redman)

UNKNOWN — Audrey Redman

If George Souliotes had served 16 years in prison for robbery or multiple burglaries or even real estate fraud and his conviction were overturned by a federal appellate court, then we would question whether the Stanislaus County district attorney's office should prosecute him again.

But Souliotes was found guilty of killing two young children and their mother by setting fire to his rental house, in which they were living. The public expense of a new trial — for prosecutors, defense attorneys and the court system — should not be a factor in what happens next.

The only priority is for justice — for those lost in the fire, for their families and for Souliotes.

Attorneys for the Northern California Innocence Project maintain that Souliotes is innocent. The state attorney general's office, which has been handling the many years of appeals, argues that Souliotes is guilty and has filed a motion to keep him behind bars.

Stanislaus District Attorney Birgit Fladager announced that her office wants to prosecute Souliotes again, also because she is convinced that he was responsible for the 1997 fire and deaths.

Although Souliotes was not sentenced to the death penalty — the jury recommended life without parole instead — this case has been the subject of multiple appeals since the conviction in 2000.

Initially those appeals went through the state court system, the 5th District Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court, which basically turned them all down.

By the late 2000s, the petitions for habeas corpus appeals had moved to the federal courts, focusing on two general themes: that some of the evidence used against Souliotes had been dismissed as scientifically invalid and that he had ineffective defense representation because his attorney failed to call any witnesses in his second trial.

By mid-2012, the legal tide had turned in Souliotes' favor and in April, a federal judge in Fresno ordered Souliotes freed or retried.

As it stands today, the attorney general's office has appealed the Fresno court decision, which will send the case to the the next higher federal court level — the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. And the Stanislaus district attorney's office is preparing for another trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

This is not a case where a new suspect has been identified or where there's incontrovertible evidence that Souliotes could not have committed this crime. It's not that easy. It is a case about reasonable doubt.

The best that our American system of justice can provide is a trial where the district attorney's office will have to prove its case based on the current science and where Souliotes deserves a vigorous defense, including some witnesses on his behalf. A new trial is the best route to justice in this sad case.

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