UPDATE Former Modesto landlord George Souliotes was released from jail shortly before 3 p.m. Wednesday.
State prison officials had held up his release after a judge ordered him released after serving 16 years in prison.
We'll have more on this story soon.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen ordered Souliotes, 72, released from custody after attorneys announced a plea deal Tuesday. 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.
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.
A group of about two dozen Souliotes supporters, including his volunteer legal defense team and his family, waited for more than eight hours in the lobby of the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center. They were eager to watch Souliotes walk out of the jail facility a free man, but that didn't happen.
Sheriff's officials told Souliotes' attorneys they were ready to release him Tuesday afternoon, but state officials had not authorized them to do so, said James Brosnahan, who led the legal defense team.
He said he was not given a definitive answer why state officials in Salinas were holding up the release of his client. Brosnahan said state prison officials were disobeying a court order.
"This is just really bad," Brosnahan said. "This is an absolute dereliction of duty by people in the Salinas (prison). They are holding him illegally."
Aleka Pantazis, Souliotes' sister, was frustrated at officials who continued to hold her brother even though a judge has ordered him free. "Until I see my brother, I have nothing else to say," she said.
Souliotes was housed at the Salinas prison until local prosecutors decided to seek a third trial.
His first trial ended in a mistrial in March 1999, with the jury deadlocked 11-1 for conviction. In the second trial, a jury found Souliotes guilty in May 2000 of starting the Jan. 15, 1997, blaze.
A federal judge this spring overturned his conviction and ordered prosecutors to begin a new trial by July 10 or set him free. The ruling was based on evidence used to convict Souliotes that since has been invalidated by modern scientific tests.
'I know ... he did it'
Jones told The Bee on Tuesday that he was ready to proceed with the trial, and he was not happy with Souliotes getting out. "I know damn well he did it," Jones insisted Tuesday. He was not home when the fire started, but he remains convinced that his former landlord set the blaze. "The federal judge screwed everything up."
The defense called the plea deal a vindication. Brosnahan said he is convinced that the third trial would have resulted in acquittal. "He didn't do it," Brosnahan said. "Now at 72, he's got to try to put his life back together."
The defense team said it agreed to the plea deal because it did not want Souliotes to endure a third lengthy trial, worry about an appeal to the federal court ruling or be faced with a hung jury.
As part of the deal, the state attorney general's office has agreed to drop its appeal in federal court.
"They were seeking to execute him and he's out walking a free man. This is a win," said Linda Starr, an attorney for the Northern California Innocence Project, which spearheaded the effort to free Souliotes. "He did not set that fire."
She called the deaths "a terrible, terrible tragedy" followed by an injustice when authorities arrested Souliotes and charged him with arson and murder.
Local prosecutors agreed to drop the arson and murder charges against Souliotes, saying it would be difficult to obtain a conviction had the case gone to trial Monday.
Steffen sentenced Souliotes to six years in prison but said he was free to go after serving more than twice that in prison. Souliotes will not be required to serve parole or pay further restitution.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris told Steffen that his office agreed to the plea deal because of recent evidentiary rulings. Judge Donald Shaver in a hearing last month excluded testimony from a neighbor who once identified Souliotes as the suspect and local fire investigators who still believe the fire was arson despite advances in fire sciences that say it wasn't. In a news release, the DA's office said the judge's ruling "essentially gutted" the prosecution's case. Harris, who prosecuted Souliotes in the first two trials, declined to comment for this report.
The prosecutors believe that even without the investigators' conclusions, a reasonable juror would believe the fire was arson based on circumstantial evidence. "There is a factual basis to conclude that the defendant did not have an operable smoke alarm as required in the house, and as a result of his negligent maintenance ... the three occupants died in the fire," according to the news release from Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager.
Jimmy McBirney, who was part of the defense team, said the stipulated basis for the plea deal makes clear the prosecution abandoned its claim of arson. "Although this plea arrangement is far from the outright dismissal that Mr. Souliotes wanted or deserved, the deal allows him to be released immediately without enduring the burden and delay of another trial while in custody," said McBirney, who also led the legal fight in federal court.
Once he is released, Souliotes plans to move in with his sister's family in Southern California. His brother-in-law, George Pantazis, said the family will focus on helping Souliotes readjust to life outside a prison cell.
He said his brother-in-law was wrongfully convicted using archaic fire science, and he hopes this outcome will help others who have been convicted with faulty evidence.
"He's an innocent man, it's been proven," said Pantazis, claiming the plea deal was just a way out for the prosecution. "This is just a game that's being played to save face."
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at (209) 578-2394.