MODESTO — A legal defense team this week will seek the release of 72-year-old defendant George Souliotes from jail as he awaits his third trial on charges of murder and arson in the deaths of a mother and her two small children.
He's being held at the Stanislaus County Jail without bail. His defense attorneys are asking the court to release the defendant on his recognizance or set a reasonable bail amount.
Souliotes is scheduled to appear in court this morning. It's unclear whether the judge today will review the bail issue, hear arguments over a defense motion to dismiss charges or both. The defendant is scheduled to return to court Tuesday for another hearing.
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.
A federal judge has overturned Souliotes' 2000 conviction and ordered prosecutors to start the new trial for him by July 10 or set him free. His new trial is scheduled to start July 8.
His attorneys argue that evidence linking Souliotes to the fire and used to convict him 13 years ago has been confirmed to be false by scientific advances in arson investigation. They also argue that the state attorney general's office has stipulated that experts cannot determine the fire's cause or whether it was accidental or arson.
"Mr. Souliotes is an innocent man of advanced age posing no threat to public safety and no credible flight risk, and he should be released forthwith to prepare for his possible retrial," according to a defense motion filed Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
The Stanislaus County district attorney's office argues that physical evidence still demonstrates that Souliotes, a landlord, started the fire that burned his rental home. The prosecutors say there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that points to a motive the defendant's anger over trying to evict the home's tenants.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris, who prosecuted Souliotes in the first two trials, has argued in court that the defendant should remain in jail. Harris says Souliotes should be held without bail because he could flee; the defendant is a Greek immigrant and not a U.S. citizen.
His defense team, led by San Francisco attorney James Brosnahan, argues that Souliotes has no valid passport or ties to Greece, a country he left 40 years ago. They say the defendant doesn't have money to relocate to another country or the ability to support himself there, leaving behind his family in the United States.
"Mr. Souliotes has every incentive to attend his proceedings to clear his good name once and for all, and he has neither the desire nor the means to flee," according to the defense motion.
Defense attorneys argue that Souliotes poses "no threat whatsoever" to public safety. They argue that the defendant has no criminal record nor has he been subject to disciplinary action while in custody for 16 years. "Furthermore, he is elderly, frail and in poor health," according to the defense motion. "He thus plainly lacks either the motive or capability to cause anyone harm."
If the judge decides he can't release the defendant on his recognizance, Souliotes' attorneys are asking the court to at least set a bail amount that their indigent client could afford.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.