MODESTO — 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 Sandovals 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
It may have been reasonable in 1997 and 2000, but its 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
Souliotes has been in state prison ever since. A federal judge since has overturned his conviction and ordered prosecutors to begin a new trial
On Monday, the defense
Shaver said in court that he denied bail
The defense attorneys
Shaver said scientific evidence is not needed in a preliminary hearing to provide probable cause for a trial. He
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 wont 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 thats 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 Brosnahans 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 thats the basis for an in-court identification, its not all that encouraging.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris argued that Sandoval said she recognized Souliotes
If the jury decided shes credible, thats the end of this story, Harris argued.
Shaver said the in-court identification cannot be used
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.
George Harris, one of Sou- liotes defense attorneys, argued that the investigators conclusions cannot be used in the trial because the attorney generals office
George Harris said the stipulations were based on opinions from experts the attorney generals office consulted in the federal proceedings. He said they
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 its up to the jury to decide the investigators credibility.
Its 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 cant 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 email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.