Fladager on Souliotes case: A win for those who seek to subvert justice

July 11, 2013 

DN Souliotes release

George Souliotes, 72, reaches out to shake hands with attorney Jimmy McBirney after his released from the Public Safety Center in Stanislaus County, July 3, 2013, after spending 16 years incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

DEBBIE NODA — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

Last week was exceptionally disappointing because the ultimate outcome of the criminal prosecution of George Souliotes for setting fire to his rental property and killing three innocent people revealed that the guilty do, sometimes, escape full justice in spite of the very best efforts of police, prosecutors, witnesses and juries.

The jurors that heard the evidence believed Souliotes was guilty of setting that fire and killing Michelle Jones, 6-year-old Daniel Jr. and 3-year-old Amanda. California state appellate courts upheld the jury's guilty verdicts.

Fast forward 13 years and federal judges (who are appointed for life) reverse the conviction. They did so not because Souliotes is "innocent"; if they had truly determined he was innocent, they would have ordered his release, not his retrial. The conviction was reversed because the defense managed to rewrite history.

The defense team's claims that evidence in the original trial was "false" and that new fire science now proves this was not arson are quite simply false themselves.

The federal court relied on a stipulation by the Attorney General's Office in a habeas proceeding where the AG didn't have the same interest as this office and certainly had no intention to bind us. However, the retired judge assigned to the retrial restricted our evidence to that overly broad and factually inaccurate stipulation, to the detriment of the truth.

For example, the stipulation stated that pour-burn patterns "are now known not to be indicators of arson using a flammable liquid." This is blatantly false; one of the defendant's own experts has written a book with an entire chapter on liquid accelerant fires and how pour patterns can be a tool to determine a fire is arson.

The only "new science" the defense presented was a single examination of old data by one of their defense experts, never tested at trial or heard by the jury, that supposedly showed that a chemical found on one pair of the defendant's shoes didn't match the chemical used to start the fire. However, the prior jury was told that when the chemical in question is found on shoes, there are other explanations for the source. The fact that it was found in the house where the fire raged and where obvious pour patters were discovered was more important. But the judge excluded that evidence.

In proclaiming the "innocence" of Souliotes, the defense discounts compelling motive evidence and the positive identification of the defendant as the person sneaking behind the victims' house shortly before the fire started. Instead, the lawyers fought to exclude this evidence and prevent a new jury from hearing all the facts.

We, like The Modesto Bee, believe that a jury should have been allowed to hear all the evidence in this case, but the judge's ruling meant that couldn't happen, leaving us no choice but to negotiate a plea to provide at least some measure of justice for the victims. As a result of this plea, Souliotes is now guilty of three counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Fladager is the Stanislaus County district attorney.

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