McBirney on Souliotes case: Plea extorted from innocent man

July 11, 2013 

The Bee's July 5 editorial on the long-overdue release of innocent man George Souliotes argues that the end to his terrible ordeal was "unsatisfactory" because it did not conclude with a third trial. With all due respect, the editorial gets both its facts and its conclusion quite wrong.

Souliotes was convicted 13 years ago based on alleged scientific evidence of arson that the California attorney general has admitted was simply wrong. The attorney general has also admitted that modern testing methods prove that the only physical evidence supposedly linking Souliotes to the fire — a chemical found on his shoes and at the fire scene — was also a false match, and in fact provides no link at all.

The attorney general made these admissions after consulting with her own experts because they are indisputably true. This is the same false evidence that the Modesto trial court properly excluded from the third trial, along with an implausible eyewitness identification that a federal court found was "wholly unreliable" and entitled to "no weight."

Your editorial notes that the federal court "ruled that tactical errors in Souliotes' defense prevented his client from being adequately represented" at his trial, but it tellingly ignores the federal court's most important finding: The federal court first considered all of the evidence in Souliotes' case and concluded in a 99-page decision that Souliotes was "actually innocent." That decision had nothing to do with the adequacy of Souliotes' representation at trial, and was only concerned with whether or not Souliotes set the fire.

Like advances in DNA testing, new fire science and forensic methods have gutted the case against Souliotes and proven his innocence. The federal court considered this evidence and found Souliotes was innocent, and that no reasonable juror viewing the current evidence would ever conclude he was guilty. It was only because of unusual rules that govern the federal justice system that the court then had to consider whether Souliotes received an inadequate defense before it could throw out his convictions. These same rules allowed the state to force Souliotes to face a third trial, despite the federal court's finding that Souliotes was innocent.

After 16 years in prison, the 72-year-old Souliotes understandably chose to end his ordeal now rather than endure further months of incarceration while waiting for a jury to provide the same "definitive result" the federal court already provided.

The only thing "unsatisfactory" is the district attorney's attempt to save face by extorting a plea for a failure to maintain working smoke alarms, rather than admitting her mistake of imprisoning an innocent man.

McBirney was Souliotes' lead counsel in federal court and a member of his most recent state court trial team.

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