George Souliotes Exonerated of Arson and Triple Murder; Walks Free After 16 Years in Prison | July.02.2013
Orrick, Morrison & Foerster LLP and The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) at Santa Clara University School of Law announced that George Souliotes, 72, will be released from a California prison after his attorneys successfully negotiated an agreement to secure his immediate freedom following 16 years of wrongful incarceration. Souliotes was wrongfully convicted of arson and triple murder in 2000 and sentenced to three life terms without parole. This agreement confirms his exoneration of arson and murder. Souliotes is expected to be released from custody today.
In 2012, two federal judges found Souliotes “actually innocent” and concluded that his conviction was based on faulty fire science. Earlier this year, the same federal court also found Souliotes had received ineffective assistance of counsel at his trial and ordered him released within 30 days unless the State took concrete and substantial steps to retry him before July 10, 2013. The State announced it would retry Souliotes, and a retrial had been set to begin on July 8.
Under the terms of the agreement announced today, Souliotes pled no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter for failure to maintain a working smoke alarm as required by the California Health and Safety Code. “The plea agreement exonerates Mr. Souliotes of the arson and murder charges he was wrongfully convicted of and further confirms the federal court’s finding that he is completely innocent of those crimes,” said Jimmy McBirney, Souliotes’ lead attorney in the federal habeas proceedings from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. “This case should not have proceeded in state court at all, and we hope those responsible for ensuring justice will take greater care in examining other convictions based on outdated and discredited scientific evidence.”
“Mr. Souliotes’ retrial reached a turning point in recent weeks when a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge excluded the prosecution’s key witness, as well as their forensic evidence, after determining both pieces of evidence were unreliable,” said Jim Brosnahan, lead defense attorney from Morrison & Foerster. “First, the judge excluded the testimony of a highly unreliable prosecution witness and second, he excluded the outdated and faulty fire science introduced at the original trial. Without this false evidence the truth was revealed that there was simply nothing linking Mr. Souliotes to this tragic fire.”
“Mr. Souliotes and his defense team maintain his absolute innocence and his decision to plead no contest to failure to maintain smoke alarms does not change that,” said Linda Starr, NCIP’s Legal Director. “He chose to resolve the case before the retrial scheduled for next month, so that he may return home to his family and friends immediately.”
On January 15, 1997, a rental property owned by Souliotes in Modesto, California, burned to the ground in the middle of the night and three tenants died in the fire.
The prosecution’s case against Souliotes was based almost entirely on two forensic pieces of evidence that new developments in fire science have since discredited. First, investigators based their arson determination on certain indicators that were long believed to be evidence of arson — but developments in modern fire science have shown these indicators are just as consistent with accidental fires or any fire where the temperature reaches "flashover" conditions.
Second, forensic tests revealed a chemical compound known as a medium petroleum distillate, or "MPD," was found at the fire scene and on Souliotes' shoes. MPDs are a chemical compound that exist in some ignitable liquids such as lighter fluid, but are also now known to exist in many household products and consumer goods, including the solvents in glues and adhesives used in floor coverings and footwear. The prosecution had repeatedly argued to the jury that the “shoes tell the tale” in implicating Souliotes.
Souliotes was tried twice before being convicted of arson and triple murder in 2000. His first trial resulted in a hung jury after his defense counsel provided a vigorous defense and called expert witnesses to rebut the prosecution. At his second trial, however, Souliotes’ defense counsel failed to present a case, called no expert witnesses to rebut the prosecution and called none of the other fact witnesses who established Souliotes’ complete lack of motive at the first trial.
In earlier proceedings, the California Attorney General conceded that all of these purported arson indicators were equally consistent with an accidental fire, and that there was no scientific evidence the fire was caused by arson. The Attorney General also conceded that the MPDs found on Souliotes' shoes are chemically distinguishable from those found at the fire scene, and thus provide no link between Souliotes and the fire. Based on these facts, a federal judge found Souliotes “actually innocent” which cleared the way for future proceedings resulting in the previously scheduled July 8 retrial.