MODESTO — George Souliotes walked into a Stanislaus County courtroom Friday morning for the first time since he was sent away to spend the rest of his life in state prison. A jury in 2000 convicted him of murder and arson in connection with a Modesto house fire that killed a mother and her two young children.
A federal judge, however, has overturned that conviction and ordered prosecutors to start his new trial by July 10 or set him free.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen scheduled Souliotes' new trial to begin July 8. Retired Judge Donald Shaver will preside.
Defense attorney Jim Brosnahan of the San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster law firm will represent Souliotes, as will attorneys George Harris and Raj Chatterjee. The attorneys are volunteering their services free of charge.
"He's been through a lot, and he deserves a fair trial," Brosnahan said outside court Friday. "He's innocent."
The jury in 2000 found the landlord guilty of starting the deadly Jan. 15, 1997, blaze at one of his rental homes. Michelle Jones, 30, and her children, Amanda, 3, and Daniel Jr., 6, were asleep in the Ronald Avenue house when the fire started.
Souliotes has been appealing that conviction ever since, first through the state legal system and then through federal courts.
Attorney Jimmy McBirney from the Orrick law firm in San Francisco led the legal fight in federal appellate court to throw out the conviction. He has said Souliotes was convicted based upon flawed scientific evidence that the state attorney general's office has admitted was false, and two federal judges last year determined Souliotes is "actually innocent."
Local prosecutors say there is "ample admissible evidence" to prove Souliotes started the fire. The state attorney general is seeking to reverse the federal judge's decision.
Steffen said it would be more efficient to bring in a retired judge to handle a case like this on such short notice. Superior Court Judge John E. Griffin Jr. presided in the 2000 trial that ended with Souliotes' conviction.
Brosnahan said he saw no problem with the court using Shaver, who retired at the end of 2010. He said it's routine when dealing with a case under these circumstances.
Souliotes, 72, was transferred Tuesday from Salinas Valley State Prison to the Stanislaus County Jail. Bailiffs brought him from the courthouse basement to the first floor on the public elevator. Typically, inmates appearing in court are ushered in using stairs not used by the public.
The bailiffs cleared the hallway momentarily as they moved Souliotes into the courtroom. His legal team and a few relatives, including his sister Aleka Pantazis, watched him walk by. His relatives declined to comment.
It did not appear that relatives or friends of the three people killed attended Friday's court hearing.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager and Modesto police Detective Craig Grogan were in the audience. Fladager has assigned Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris, who prosecuted the case in 2000, to take on the new trial.
Brosnahan first told Steffen that he estimated the trial could be completed in about four weeks. Dave Harris estimated the trial would be substantially longer, considering Souliotes' first trial went on for more than three months. He told the judge it's more likely the trial will be completed in two to three months.
Steffen agreed, telling Brosnahan that the defendant's second trial, which ended with the conviction, lasted a few weeks, "but there wasn't much of a defense." Souliotes' first trial ended in a mistrial with the jury deadlocked 11-1 for conviction.
In the second trial, Souliotes' defense attorneys decided not to call witnesses and relied on the theory that the prosecution failed to prove its case. But the prosecution convinced the jury that Souliotes was having financial troubles and trying to evict the home's tenants, giving him a motive to start the fire. (Whether Souliotes was having financial troubles before the rental home caught fire will be debated during his new trial, his attorneys said.)
Since then, a chemical link between Souliotes' shoes and the fire scene has been disproved by modern testing methods.
The federal judges who found Souliotes "actually innocent" determined that he did not receive adequate legal representation during his second trial.
Friday, Steffen scheduled a hearing June 10 to determine whether Souliotes will remain in custody without bail. His defense attorney is seeking to have the court set a bail amount and give Souliotes an opportunity to be released on bail until the conclusion of his trial.
The prosecutor is asking the court to keep Souliotes at the county jail. Dave Harris told the judge Friday that the defendant could be a flight risk because he is a Greek immigrant and not a U.S. citizen.
Friday's hearing ended within 20 minutes as Souliotes was ushered out of the courtroom and walked down the nonpublic stairs typically used for inmates.
An all-volunteer defense team from the Northern California Innocence Project, which has fought for Souliotes' exoneration in federal court, will continue to assist Brosnahan's team. Several of them, including the project's legal director, Linda Starr, attended Friday's hearing. They gathered outside the courtroom to discuss the details of the hearing with Souliotes' relatives.
The state attorney general's office has filed a motion seeking a stay, arguing that the federal judge's ruling was wrong. If granted, Souliotes wouldn't get a new trial until there is time to appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The state's motion is still pending.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.