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Man convicted of setting fatal arson fire wins right to try to prove innocence

George Souliotes, 71, serving a life sentence for setting a blaze that killed a mother and her two children, will attempt to show a judge in January that his conviction was based on bad science and a poor understanding of the nature and patterns of house fires.

November 26, 2011|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • A photo of a young George Souliotes, now 71, who was convicted of setting a house fire in Modesto that killed a mother and her two children in 1997. He will attempt to show a judge in January that his conviction was based on bad science and a poor understanding of the nature and patterns of house fires.
A photo of a young George Souliotes, now 71, who was convicted of setting…

A California man serving a life sentence for setting a fire that killed a mother and her two children has won the right to try to prove his innocence.

George Souliotes, 71, convicted of setting a Modesto house on fire for insurance money, will attempt to show a judge in January that his conviction was based on bad science and a poor understanding of the nature and patterns of house fires.

The legal fight of the Greek immigrant, championed by a sister in Glendale and the Northern California Innocence Project, has attracted national attention because the conditions fire investigators cited as proof of arson in his case are now known to be present during accidental fires.

After years of being impeded by a missed legal deadline, defense attorneys for Souliotes won an expedited hearing to determine whether he is actually innocent. The hearing will be held before U.S. Magistrate Michael J. Seng in Fresno — 15 years after the blaze that sent Souliotes to prison for life without parole.

Souliotes and his defense lawyers will try to show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him given new evidence in the case.

Prosecutors told jurors during Souliotes' two trials — the first ended in a hung jury — that a flammable substance found on shoes in Souliotes' home matched a compound that ignited the fire.

"The shoes tell the tale," the trial prosecutor said in closing arguments.

But years later, a scientist discovered a process by which he could distinguish the substances. The compounds on the shoes and from the fire debris were found to be chemically different and came from different sources, experts learned.

Souliotes, a divorced father of two who was living in Modesto, owned a rental house that burned on a cold, wet night in mid-January 1997. Three of his tenants, whom he was in the process of evicting, died: Michelle Jones, 31, and her children, Daniel Jr., 8, and Amanda, 3.

Souliotes, then 56, was behind bars by the end of the day.

Lawyers for Souliotes argued that a faulty gas line to a stove with a troubled history ignited the spark. Modesto firefighters and other prosecution experts, citing burn patterns, concluded the blaze was arson.

Prosecutors said they remain certain of Souliotes' guilt. They will attempt to show at the January hearing that he had a financial motive for setting the fire and will introduce testimony from an eyewitness who identified Souliotes as a man she said she saw approach the house minutes before it burst into flames.

The Fresno hearing, scheduled to start Jan. 24, is expected to last three to five days.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Kathleen A. McKenna, who wants Souliotes' conviction to stand, could not be reached for comment. In an earlier interview, she said there remained "compelling" evidence of guilt, even with the new evidence.

Aleka Pantazis, 64, Souliotes' sister, has traveled up and down the state in her quest to free her brother. Behind bars for 15 years, Souliotes now walks with a cane and suffers from high blood pressure. One of his lawyers said he looked frail during a visit several days ago and was shaking as he tried to warm himself in a cold prison room.

"For the first time, we have something positive, and to tell you the truth, I can't wait until we go into this hearing," Pantazis said. "But I am trying to hold back, not to have too high of hopes."

Souliotes' lawyers caution that the hurdles remain high.

If Souliotes convinces the courts that he is innocent, he still will not be able to walk out of prison, said Linda Starr, supervising attorney with the Santa Clara University-based Innocence Project. An innocence finding will simply allow his attorney to proceed, despite the missed legal deadline years ago, to challenge his conviction on the grounds of inadequate counsel.

After various twists and turns in the legal case, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in August cleared the way for an innocence hearing and ordered that it be expedited.

"Somebody in the 9th Circuit is interested in this case, rightly so," Starr said.

For decades, fire investigators believed that blazes set by gasoline and other accelerants behaved differently from those that were accidental. Melted steel, glass etched by tiny cracks and particular patterns and markings were believed to be telltale signs of arson.

But when the theories were finally tested, scientists learned the conditions also were found in accidental blazes.

The execution of Todd Willingham in Texas in 2004 for the arson murders of his three children spurred many fire investigators to call for a reexamination of arson convictions.

Scientific reviews of the forensic evidence in Willingham's case later showed that the fire that killed his children and resulted in his execution might well have been accidental.

Souliotes' defense will be assisted by a fire investigator who conducted an experiment to determine whether burn patterns, such as those found at the Modesto house, indicated arson. The investigator burned four structures to test various theories. His report is expected to be filed Dec. 1.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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