MODESTO — More than 16 years after authorities arrested him and later sentenced him to spend the rest of his life in prison, George Souliotes walked out a free man from a Stanislaus County jail Wednesday afternoon.
The former Modesto landlord was grateful his supporters never gave up their fight to overturn his conviction on murder and arson charges. For a 72-year-old man in custody more than a decade, he was just happy to walk out of jail.
"I see the sun. It's beautiful," Souliotes said, trying to answer questions about how he felt.
Aleka Pantazis, Souliotes' sister, was overwhelmed with emotion seeing her brother for the first time out of custody. She hugged him tightly, sharing tears of joy.
"There are no words to express how I truly feel," Pantazis said.
A federal judge this spring overturned Souliotes' 2000 conviction and ordered prosecutors to begin a new trial by next Wednesday or set him free. The ruling was based on evidence used to convict Souliotes that has been invalidated by modern scientific tests.
Jimmy McBirney led the legal defense effort in federal court for six years. He said seeing Souliotes walk out of jail was more intense than he'd imagined.
"To see the man that has been the face of injustice for me for six years, who every day I had to leave in a jail cell, to see him walk free in his own clothes, without chains, a free man, is completely overwhelming," McBirney said.
Lawyers from the Northern California Innocence Project were the first to fight for Souliotes' freedom after his conviction. They helped form the all-volunteer legal defense team that included noted attorney James Brosnahan, who was ready to lead the defense in the third trial. "It's a wonderful day for justice," Brosnahan said.
He said Souliotes has his courage, strength and sense of humor to help him adjust to life outside jail. "It will be hard for him," he said. "His life was taken away."
Souliotes didn't say much to reporters gathered outside the jail before his family ushered him away. His plans are to move in with his sister's family in Southern California.
His legal defense team opted for a plea deal that would result in his immediate release; however, 29 more hours passed before authorities let him go.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said an immigration hold from more than 10 years ago held up the release. He said he notified immigration officials of the situation, and the federal hold was removed overnight. But several more hours went by before state prison officials authorized the jail to release him.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation makes sure it doesn't release an inmate who might be wanted in another state or even another country. Luis Patiño, a department spokesman, said the department has five days to complete the review, but tries to conduct that process as quickly as possible.
A Stanislaus County judge ordered Souliotes released from custody after attorneys announced the plea deal Tuesday morning. The defendant agreed to plead no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter for failing to maintain smoke detectors in his rental home that burned in a deadly 1997 fire. His sentence was six years in prison.
The blaze resulted in the deaths of Souliotes' tenants, Michelle Jones, 30; and her children, Amanda, 3; and Daniel Jr., 6. They were asleep in the Ronald Avenue house when the fire started.
Throughout the ordeal, Pantazis said she never forgot Jones and her two children. "I hope that Michelle, Daniel and Amanda are remembered," Pantazis said. "Three people were lost accidentally (in the fire), and the fourth one was my brother."
Daniel Jones Sr., whose wife and children died in the fire, told The Bee on Tuesday that he was not happy Souliotes was freed, and he still believes the landlord started the fire.
Pantazis said she doesn't think there is anything she can say to Daniel Jones Sr., because he has made up his mind. But she hopes others finally will disregard the theories used to convict her brother.
"That's not my brother; he would never do that," she said. "My brother was not an arsonist or a murderer."
Prosecutors said Souliotes burned the house to evict his tenants and collect insurance money. His attorneys argued that he was not in financial trouble and an insurance payout wouldn't have covered the remaining mortgage on the home.
The defense team said it agreed to the plea deal because it avoided a lengthy third trial. But it insisted that the facts show Souliotes is an innocent man.
Local prosecutors said Tuesday they agreed to the plea deal because evidentiary rulings had gutted their case and it would be too difficult to obtain a conviction.
Souliotes' sister said she holds some bitterness toward investigators who refused to change their minds even after modern fire science indicated that it was not arson. "Even though we proved that they were wrong, they don't want to accept it," Pantazis said.
She said the plea deal wasn't exactly what she wanted, which was acquittal or all charges dismissed. But it was the best solution under the circumstances.
"There is no arson, there is no murder," Pantazis said. "In my book, there is no negligence. The most important thing is that he's free."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.