MODESTO — Stanislaus County prosecutors argue that physical evidence still demonstrates that landlord George Souliotes started a fire that burned his rental home and killed a woman and her two small children sleeping inside.
Their arguments are listed in a response to a defense motion seeking the dismissal of murder and arson charges against Souliotes. His 2000 conviction was overturned by a federal judge, who ordered prosecutors to start a new trial for Souliotes by July 10 or set him free.
Michelle Jones, 30, and her children, Amanda, 3, and Daniel Jr., 6, were asleep in the Ronald Avenue house when the fire started. A jury found Souliotes guilty of starting the deadly Jan. 15, 1997, blaze; he was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life in prison without parole.
Jim Brosnahan, Souliotes' defense attorney, argues in his motion that evidence linking his client to the fire has been confirmed to be false by advances in arson science.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager and Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris assert that the federal court reversed Souliotes' conviction based on ineffective assistance from his defense attorney in the 2000 trial, not insufficient evidence.
His 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.
The prosecutors argue that the defense is overlooking the fact that "there remains the evidence that portions of the house separated by a firewall burned simultaneously and that a firewall between the living room and garage remained intact," according to their response filed Thursday afternoon in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Brosnahan argues that state prosecutors 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 prosecutors said that chemical substance, called a medium petroleum distillate, was found in the fire debris. A criminalist testified that it's rare to find that substance in fire debris, which the prosecutors argue is further evidence of arson.
The defense points to the stipulation by the state attorney general's office in federal court that its experts can't determine whether the fire was accidental or arson. Brosnahan says the government has admitted its arson evidence is false.
The prosecutors called that a "blatant misrepresentation," arguing that the stipulations were based on limited evidence presented to experts in federal court, not the evidence collected from the fire scene in 1997.
The defense motion asks the local court to hold a new preliminary hearing to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to justify another trial. Prosecutors argue that the federal court overturned the conviction, not the ruling in Souliotes' preliminary hearing that ordered him to stand trial.
Evidence, trial order not linked?
Prosecutors also argue that scientific evidence of arson is not needed to order a trial. Prosecutors say the defendant had access to the property as the landlord and had an acrimonious relationship with the family, whom he was trying to evict.
Neighbor Monica Sandoval testified that she spotted Souliotes' motor home moving up and down Ronald Avenue several times. The driver parked across the street from the home, then got out and walked to the house with a white sack. She said the person returned to the motor home without the sack, and the home erupted in flames shortly after, the prosecutors said.
Brosnahan argues that the federal court found Sandoval's testimony "wholly unreliable" and "not to be deserving of any weight."
The prosecutors say a mobile home park manager saw an angry exchange between the defendant, who was driving his motor home at the time, and Jones one or two days before the fire. They also point to a bank manager who testified that Souliotes came into the bank in "an irate state," asked the manager to take back the rental property and tried to give her the house keys.
Brosnahan argues that Souliotes was not in financial trouble, that his $4,000 monthly income from his rentals, workers compensation and Social Security payments was nearly double his estimated monthly expenses at the time.
The attorneys will have an opportunity to argue the issues during a June 10 hearing. Souliotes, 72, remains in custody at Stanislaus County Jail. The trial begins July 8.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.