Modern forensic technology has dramatically improved the ability for law enforcement to identify and prosecute people for their crimes. DNA testing also makes it possible and sometimes embarrassing for law enforcement to definitively prove that occasionally someone has spent much of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
Such is not the case for George Souliotes. The landlord, now 72, who was convicted of burning his rental property and killing the mother and her two children inside in 1997, became a free man on Wednesday afternoon under circumstances far less convincing than DNA testing and far less satisfying than a jury's acquittal.
After a winding legal battle, including appeals that upheld his original arson and murder convictions, a federal judge changed the narrative entirely this spring. The judge ruled that tactical errors in Souliotes' defense prevented his client from being adequately represented in the second of two trials in 2000 (the first ended in mistrial the year before).
To garner his freedom, Souliotes pleaded no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter for not having smoke detectors in his rental home. This plea agreement reflects a dramatic reduction from the original charges of murder and arson.
Cited by his defense attorney as a key in this victory, and as the factor that the district attorney's office said "gutted" its case, a Stanislaus County judge excluded the testimony of an eyewitness in the planned trial, as well as excluding the fire science introduced at the original trial 13 years ago.
This is not an outcome to celebrate. Souliotes, while now free, served 16 years for crimes that he no longer stands convicted of. The people of Stanislaus County never got the definitive answer they might have gotten from a new trial, whether it resulted in conviction or acquittal.
And Michelle Jones and her children, Daniel and Amanda, are still gone, their lives taken in an inferno on that cold January morning.