George Souliotes leaves the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse in… (Joan Barnett Lee / Modesto…)
MODESTO — After spending 16 years behind bars for a triple-murder arson, a 72-year-old man in shackles and a red-striped jail suit shuffled into a crowded courtroom here Tuesday to end his quest to prove his innocence.
"Defendant is to be released from custody forthwith," said Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott T. Steffen.
George Souliotes had been convicted of the arson murders in a trial in which prosecutors sought the death penalty. In exchange for his freedom, he agreed to plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter for negligently failing to ensure there were working smoke detectors in the Modesto house he rented to the victims, Michelle Jones, 31, and her children, Daniel, 8, and Amanda, 3.
A federal judge found earlier this year that Souliotes had proved "actual innocence" and overturned his conviction on the grounds that his former defense attorney had performed incompetently.
His lawyers and family said he reluctantly agreed to the plea rather than risk another jury trial, which had been scheduled to begin Monday, and possibly years of appeal. Souliotes is in failing health, and his family feared he would die behind bars.
"He is walking free because they can't prove their case of arson or homicide, and he didn't do it," said Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project, run by Santa Clara University. "They tried to execute him twice" during two capital trials. The jury hung in the first one.
Much of the evidence against Souliotes was refuted during the federal innocence proceedings. The science behind the arson findings was debunked, and the federal court found that an eyewitness who had testified for the prosecution lacked credibility.
Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Dave Harris, who prosecuted Souliotes in the murder trial, agreed in court Tuesday to the terms of the plea. It included a commitment from prosecutors to withdraw their appeal of the federal order that overturned the convictions. Harris refused to comment after the proceeding.
No relatives of Michelle Jones were recognized at Tuesday's hearing, though Harris said Daniel Jones, the husband and father of the victims, had been consulted on the plea.
Souliotes, a Greek immigrant, was smiling as he entered the courtroom but occasionally had trouble hearing the judge and asked him to repeat his questions. His family said one of his hearing aids was broken.
A no-contest plea, treated as a guilty plea in terms of sentencing, means the defendant denied the truth of the charges but conceded there was factual support for them. The charges in the plea agreement carried a maximum six-year sentence, far less than the number of years he served.
Aleka Pantazis, 65, Souliotes' sister, had long tried to prove his innocence. The Glendale woman enlisted the support of the Innocence Project, which in turn obtained free legal services on the case for nearly a decade from the firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.
James J. Brosnahan, a high-profile criminal defense lawyer, and other attorneys from Morrison Foerster law firm also had been working pro bono on a scheduled retrial and in the negotiations for Souliotes' release.
"It doesn't get any better than this," said Brosnahan, who has worked 54 years as a defense lawyer.
Pantazis was in court Tuesday with her husband, George, and Souliotes' sons, Aleko, 38, and Demetre, 36.
"To say he wasn't a good landlord and neglected the place and we lost three people, that is not a nice feeling," Pantazis said. "We would prefer the 100% truth, but they have to save face, and we might have had to keep going on this for years. The most important thing is that they removed the arson and murder charge."
She said any qualms about the plea vanish when she looks back to the time "when they were asking for his death."
Aleko Souliotes said he remains bitter that his father was convicted at all. The conviction felt "dirty," he said, and the plea agreement has barred his father from seeking vindication in a civil lawsuit.
"I felt I lost my father," he said. "One day you have a father, the next day you don't."
After the short court hearing, the family and lawyers went to the county jail to wait for Souliotes to be freed. His sister, waiting in the steaming heat outside, wept. His sons huddled nearby.
Jimmy S. McBirney, Souliotes' Orrick lawyer, stressed that the plea agreement exonerated Souliotes of the arson and murder charges.
"Although this plea agreement is far from the complete dismissal of charges George wanted and deserved, the deal allows him to be released immediately without enduring the burden and delay of another trial while in custody," McBirney said.
Investigators concluded in 1997 that the house fire was intentional, based on markers now known to be present in accidental blazes. Police suspected Souliotes almost immediately, and he was arrested that day.