Lawyer: Drop charges in deadly Modesto fire

rahumada@modbee.comMay 25, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    Rosalio Ahumada
    Title: Courts reporter
    Coverage areas: Criminal cases, breaking news
    Bio: Rosalio Ahumada has been a reporter at The Bee for more than seven years, previously covering crime and public safety issues. He also has worked at the Merced Sun-Star, covering education.
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    E-mail: rahumada@modbee.com

— A defense attorney has filed a motion to dismiss charges against a man facing a third trial in Stanislaus County after a federal judge overturned his 2000 conviction in the deaths of a mother and her two young children in a Modesto house fire.

The federal judge ordered prosecutors to start the new trial for George Souliotes by July 10 or set him free. Local prosecutors say there is "ample admissible evidence" to prove the defendant started the fire.

A hearing for arguments over the motion to dismiss has been set for June 5. Souliotes is charged with three counts of murder and one count of arson. His trial is scheduled to start July 8.

Jim Brosnahan, Souliotes' defense attorney, says evidence linking his client to the fire has been confirmed to be false by scientific advances in arson investigation, according to the defense motion filed Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

"Mr. Souliotes has spent over 16 years incarcerated based on evidence the government admits is false," Brosnahan said in his motion. "The prosecution has an obligation to cure its prior submission of false evidence. No one should have to undergo the injustice imposed on Mr. Souliotes."

As of Friday afternoon, the Stanislaus County district attorney's office had not filed an opposition to the defense motion and declined to comment further.

Michelle Jones, 30, and her children, Amanda, 3, and Daniel Jr., 6, were asleep in the Ronald Avenue house when the fire started. Souliotes was the landlord of the rental property.

A jury in 2000 found Souliotes guilty of starting the deadly Jan. 15, 1997, blaze. His first trial ended in a mistrial, with the jury deadlocked 11-1 for conviction.

In federal court, the state attorney general's office has "stipulated that its experts cannot determine the cause and origin of the fire and cannot determine if it was accidental or the result of arson," according to Brosnahan's motion.

Brosnahan argues that state prosecutors also have stipulated that the chemical compound found on Souliotes' shoes is commonly found in household products and is distinguishable from the compound discovered at the scene, and that the compounds did not come from the same source.

The only other evidence linking Souliotes to the fire, Brosnahan argues, is testimony from Monica Sandoval. She was 19 at the time and testified that she saw Souliotes driving his distinctive, van-size Winnebago motor home back and forth in front of the Ronald Avenue home that night.

Sandoval said she saw the motor home stop, and then a person got out and carried a white sack to the rear of the house. The fire began moments later.

The witness failed to identify Souliotes in a photo lineup, Brosnahan says, but she was able to identify him as the suspect six months later in the preliminary hearing after his photo appeared in various news reports.

Couldn't identify motor home

Sandoval testified that she identified Souliotes based on his facial features despite already having said she did not get a good enough look at the driver, according to the defense attorney. He also said Sandoval on the morning after the fire failed to identify Souliotes' Winnebago as the vehicle she saw in front of the Ronald Avenue home.

Brosnahan argues that the federal court found Sandoval's testimony "wholly unreliable" and "not to be deserving of any weight." He says without the fire evidence, the federal court determined that no reasonable juror would have convicted Souliotes based on Sandoval's testimony and the prosecution's theory of a motive.

In the 2000 trial, the prosecution convinced the jury that Souliotes' motive to start the fire was that he was having financial troubles and trying to evict the home's tenants.

Brosnahan calls the prosecution motive theory false and unsupported. He argues that Souliotes was not in financial trouble, that his $4,000 monthly income from rental properties and workers compensation and Social Security payments was nearly double his estimated monthly expenses at the time.

Souliotes also had more than $18,000 in cash and assets at the time, enough to last him about eight months without substantially changing his lifestyle, according to the defense attorney. Souliotes continued making timely mortgage payments on the Ronald Avenue home for about two years after the fire, even while in custody.

Brosnahan argues that Souliotes would not have benefited from destroying his own house for insurance proceeds. He says the insurance company determined that the cash value of the home before the fire was $55,000, well below the sale listing price, and it wouldn't have nearly covered his remaining mortgage balance.

The defense motion is asking the local court to, at the least, hold a new preliminary hearing to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to justify another trial.

The defense attorney says the purported scientific evidence the prosecution relied upon in Souliotes' preliminary hearing and at trial doesn't show guilt or provide probable cause.

"Indeed, holding Mr. Souliotes over for trial at this time would deny his substantial right to be held over on competent evidence and his right to Due Process," according to Brosnahan's motion.

Souliotes, 72, was transferred earlier this month from Salinas Valley State Prison and is being held without bail at the Stanislaus County Jail. A hearing to determine whether a bail amount should be set has been scheduled for June 10.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394.

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