Arson charges stand, some evidence out in Souliotes trial

rahumada@modbee.comJune 10, 2013 

George Souliotes

George Souliotes booking photo, May 7, 2013.

UNKNOWN — Stanislaus Co. Sheriff's Dept.

  • 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.
    Recent stories written by Rosalio
    On Twitter: @ModBeeCourts
    E-mail: rahumada@modbee.com

— A judge on Monday rejected a defense motion to dismiss murder and arson charges against Modesto landlord George Souliotes and ordered that he remain in custody without bail as he awaits his third trial.

Souliotes’ volunteer legal defense team, however, won two victories on evidence the prosecution intended to use in his upcoming trial.

Judge Donald Shaver ruled that a key witness, neighbor Monica Sandoval, cannot identify Souliotes as the suspect in the deadly 1997 fire that resulted in the deaths of a mother and her two small children. The judge called Sandoval’s account of whom she saw on the night of the fire at Souliotes’ rental home “way too speculative.”

The judge also decided that two former fire investigators who examined the evidence 16 years ago cannot testify that they still believe the fire was intentionally started.

Shaver said the investigators’ opinions would not stem from new evidence, so their conclusions are based on what is no longer generally accepted as fire science.

“It may have been reasonable in 1997 and 2000, but it’s no longer reasonable today,” the judge said.

Michelle Jones, 30, and her children, Amanda, 3, and Daniel Jr., 6, were asleep in the Ronald Avenue house when the fire started. Souliotes’ first trial ended in a mistrial in March 1999, with the jury deadlocked 11-1 for conviction. In the second trial, a jury found Souliotes guilty in May 2000 of starting the Jan. 15, 1997, blaze.

Souliotes has been in state prison ever since. A federal judge since has overturned his conviction and ordered prosecutors to begin a new trial by July 10 or set him free. His new trial starts July 8.

On Monday, the defense sought Souliotes’ release on his recognizance or for the court to set a reasonable bail amount.

Shaver said in court that he denied bail based on the overriding factor of the potential sentence. Souliotes’ conviction resulted in a sentence of three consecutive terms of life without parole.

The defense attorneys argued that the charges should be dismissed, or that Souliotes deserves a new preliminary hearing. They said prosecution evidence used to prove arson is now false. “There’s no evidence of arson in this case at all — none,” defense attorney James Brosnahan told the judge.

Shaver said scientific evidence is not needed in a preliminary hearing to provide probable cause for a trial. He said that the federal court didn’t ask for a new preliminary hearing, only a new trial.

Brosnahan asked: How can Souliotes stand trial on arson charges without arson evidence?

“Let the prosecution present what they have before the defendant stands trial a third time,” he argued.

The judge said the current evidence in a new preliminary hearing still would result in an order for another trial. But Shaver ruled that some of the evidence used in the first two trials won’t be introduced in the third.

Sandoval, the neighbor, testified that she spotted a motor home resembling one owned by Souliotes moving up and down Ronald Avenue several times in a 90-minute period. 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.

Brosnahan argued that Sandoval told investigators she saw the driver for only a few seconds from a balcony at night, and that’s how she identified Souliotes.

But the witness failed to identify Souliotes in a photo lineup, the defense attorney argued, and she was able to identify him as the suspect six months later in the preliminary hearing only after his photo was in news reports.

The judge agreed with Brosnahan’s argument, adding that the witness claimed that she recognized Souliotes from more than 100 feet away.

“It looks pretty thin to me,” Shaver told the prosecutor. “If that’s the basis for an in-court identification, it’s not all that encouraging.”

Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris argued that Sandoval said she recognized Souliotes as he leaned forward while stopping at a nearby intersection while driving away. She said she spotted his glasses and described his face, clothes and body build.

The prosecutor said that Sandoval didn’t see someone else in the motor home, and she withstood cross-examination.

“If the jury decided she’s credible, that’s the end of this story,” Harris argued.

Shaver said the in-court identification cannot be used because Sandoval made a circumstantial link to Souliotes. The judge told the attorneys she still can testify about what she saw that night, but she can’t point to Souliotes as the suspect.

Harris told the judge that Sandoval has been served with a subpoena, ordering her to testify in the trial. The defense attorneys say they have not been able to find her.

The prosecutor said that former Modesto Fire Capts. Thomas Reuscher and Bob Evers will testify that they still believe the fire was intentionally started, based on their examination of the burned home and their experience as fire investigators.

George Harris, one of Sou- liotes’ defense attorneys, argued that the investigators’ conclusions cannot be used in the trial because the attorney general’s office has agreed that testimony is now false.

The stipulations stated that burn patterns, floor damage and extreme heat from the fire no longer are accepted indicators of arson. They appeared to be the result of “over-flash” burning from the fire and the roof collapsing, and not arson.

George Harris said the stipulations were based on opinions from experts the attorney general’s office consulted in the federal proceedings. He said they have stipulated that the chemical compound found on Souliotes’ shoes did not come from the same source of the chemical discovered at the burned home, so there is no physical evidence linking the defendant to the fire scene.

The prosecutor argued that the stipulations indicated there could have been other causes for the fire; the agreement did not rule out arson. He told the judge that the state court is not bound by stipulations in federal court, and it’s up to the jury to decide the investigators’ credibility.

“It’s a clean slate to start this particular trial,” Dave Harris told the judge.

Shaver disagreed with the prosecutor and ordered that the investigators cannot offer their conclusions to the jury and cannot mention the chemical compound on Souliotes’ shoes. He said the investigators can testify, but they can’t discuss elements of the investigation no longer generally accepted as scientific evidence.

Introducing those elements to the jury would be “fundamentally unfair” and “inviting trouble,” the judge told the attorneys.

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

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