A photo of a young George Apostolos Souliotes, now 72, who was ordered released… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )
A 72-year-old man who has served 16 years of a life sentence for setting a fire that killed his tenant and her two young children was ordered released Friday by a federal judge who found that he did not receive a fair trial because of inadequate representation.
District Judge Anthony W. Ishii ordered George Souliotes released unless California prosecutors decide to retry the Greek immigrant for the 1997 fire.
Ishii concurred with the recommendations of a magistrate judge who found in a 93-page opinion last month that Souliotes should be freed because his trial was "fundamentally unfair." The magistrate judge had ruled that no reasonable juror would find Souliotes guilty of triple homicide if they were presented with the evidence today.
The fire at Souliotes’ Modesto property broke out as he was attempting to evict Michelle Jones, 31, and her children, 8 and 3. Relying on patterns and markings in the burnt home, experts had testified at trial that the blaze was deliberately set -- opinions that have since been scientifically debunked. Authorities alleged Souliotes set the fire for an insurance payout.
Prosecutors now concede they cannot definitively prove arson was behind the deaths.
U.S. Magistrate Michael J. Seng found that the strategic decisions made by Souliotes’ attorney in his second trial, choosing not to call a single witness, “cannot be justified." In his first trial, in which his defense called an expert who opined that the fire was accidental, jurors had deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of guilt.
Prosecutors objected to the magistrate’s findings, arguing that it was improper for the judge to second-guess tactical decisions the defense attorney made based on evidence available at the time of trial.
The day when Souliotes walks out a free man, his attorney said, depends on when state prosecutors declare whether they will bring a new trial. They have up to 30 days to make the decision. Prosecutors had argued to keep him behind bars after the magistrate’s ruling.
“George is an innocent man. He waited way too long,” said Jimmy McBirney, who represented Souliotes along with attorneys from the Northern California Innocence Project.
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