Former Modesto landlord gets new attorney in arson-murder case

Lawyer in U.S. top 30 donating time to case

jnsbranti@modbee.comMay 13, 2013 

— The last time George Souliotes was tried on murder charges, federal appellate judges say, his publicly financed Modesto attorneys did a lousy job.

So Souliotes will get a new trial July 8, but this time, his lawyer will be a nationally recognized attorney with an astounding winning record.

In his 142 trials, San Francisco attorney James J. Brosnahan reportedly has lost only 11 times. He's been named one of the top 30 trial lawyers in the United States and has garnered a long list of achievement awards.

Brosnahan, 79, will donate his legal talents to defend Souliotes, who is accused of setting a house fire in 1997 that killed a Modesto mother and her two children.

"Prosecutors should be pretty wary of this guy. He's the real deal," Modesto defense attorney Frank Carson said of Brosnahan. "He's a big fish in a little pond here."

Brosnahan won't be swimming to Modesto alone. Two attorneys from his Morrison & Foerster legal firm — George C. Harris and Raj Chatterjee — will join him at the defense table.

"We believe he is innocent and needs a defense," Harris told The Bee on Monday. "Our firm is completely supporting us and providing pro bono services for Mr. Sou- liotes."

Northern California Innocence Project attorney Linda Starr and Orrick law firm attorney Jimmy McBirney of San Francisco also will help defend Souliotes at no charge.

Squaring off with them in court will be Stanislaus County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris, who has prosecuted Souliotes twice before. The first murder and arson trial, in 1999, ended with a hung jury; the second trial, in 2000, resulted in conviction and a lifetime prison sentence for Souliotes.

Lawyers from the Innocence Project have been fighting for Souliotes' freedom ever since. Last month, his triple-murder conviction was overturned.

Called the 'lion of the trial bar'

Souliotes, 72, has been behind bars for 16 years, but his defenders insist that he is innocent. They contend that the arson evidence used to convict him has been debunked by modern science.

When Brosnahan "learned about the case, he was eager to take it on and help correct this injustice," McBirney said.

Brosnahan took over Souli-otes' defense Friday, which sparked speculation around Modesto's downtown courthouse about what the "lion of the trial bar" will do.

"I like watching good lawyers, so I'm going to go watch this guy," said Carson, adding that Brosnahan "should inspire defense attorneys."

So far, what's impressed Modesto defense attorney Kirk McAllister about the Souliotes' retrial is how little time attorneys are being given to prepare. The federal court judge ordered the new trial begin before July 10, and so it will.

McAllister said it usually takes a couple of years to prepare a murder trial defense, not just a couple of months. "People will be scrambling on both sides to get this case ready," he said.

While Souliotes' case is important in Modesto, many of Brosnahan's clients have been much bigger names — including John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban.

Brosnahan told The American Lawyer law magazine that his biggest professional regret was being "unable to convince the country (of) the truth that John Walker Lindh never raised his hand against any American ever and should not have received a lengthy jail sentence."

Lindh initially faced the potential of serving multiple life sentences, but Brosnahan negotiated a 20-year sentence with federal prosecutors in 2002 that avoided a guilty plea to terrorism charges.

"He's a fighter for the underdog," Lindh's father, Frank Lindh, told The American Lawyer about Brosnahan. "He's a fighter for truth and for justice."

Brosnahan has argued civil and criminal appeals in state and federal court, including two cases in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pretrial hearing June 10

He was inducted into the State Bar of California's Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame, named Trial Lawyer of the Year by the American Board of Trial Advocates and bestowed the Legend of the Law award by the San Francisco Lawyers' Club.

Brosnahan was named one of the country's most influential trial lawyers by the National Law Journal, given the Judge Learned Hand Award from the American Jewish Committee, and recognized in 2012 as a Lifetime Achiever by The American Lawyer.

He is credited with starting the San Francisco Bar Association's Volunteer Legal Service Program.

The next step in Souliotes case will be a pretrial hearing June 10.

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


LEGAL HIGHLIGHTS

San Francisco attorney James J. Brosnahan reportedly has lost only 11 times in 142 trials. He's been named one of the top 30 trial lawyers in the country, and is now representing accused arsonist George Souliotes. Here's a small list of accomplishments from Brosnahan's website:

• A $32 million decision for Marin General Hospital against Sutter Health in 2013

• Dismissal of all counts in the Sacramento Federal Court for a Fresno man charged with conspiracy to overthrow the Laotian government

• Dismissal of all charges against Patricia Dunn, former chairwoman of the board of the Hewlett-Packard Corp.

• Obtained a jury verdict for an Oakland Raiders football player of $340,000 in an assault case

• Successfully defended Oakland and Alameda County in a dispute with the Raiders over the Oakland Coliseum

• Successfully defended a product manufacturer in the first breast implant product liability jury trial in California

• Successful settlement on behalf of the majority owners of the Golden State Warriors

• Obtained successful results in civil and criminal cases for the producers of the movie "The Crow"

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