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Inmate whose arson murder conviction was overturned will be retried

After proving his innocence, George Souliotes, 72, who has spent 16 years in prison, was ordered freed or retried in the triple-murder arson case. Prosecutors have opted for a new trial.

May 07, 2013|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • A photo of a young George Souliotes, who will be retried in the case of a 1997 house fire that killed a mother and her two children.
A photo of a young George Souliotes, who will be retried in the case of a 1997…

SAN FRANCISCO — A prison inmate whose triple-murder arson conviction was overturned after he demonstrated "actual innocence" will be retried rather than released, prosecutors said.

U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii ordered the state last month to release George Souliotes, 72, or retry him immediately. After finding that Souliotes had proved his innocence, the judge overturned his conviction on the grounds he had been incompetently represented by his lawyer.

Souliotes has spent 16 years in prison for murder in the deaths of Michelle Jones, 31, and her two children, Daniel Jr., 8, and Amanda, 3. The three died when a fire erupted in the home the family was renting from Souliotes.

"There is ample admissible evidence which compels a retrial of the defendant for the murders of a mother and her two young children," Stanislaus County Dist. Atty. Birgit Fladager announced Monday.

The decision to retry Souliotes stunned his family, and attorneys for the Northern California Innocence Project and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who have been representing him without charge. They expected Souliotes to be released this month.

"It is shocking to me that the D.A. would attempt to retry a case where the prior conviction was based almost entirely upon purported scientific evidence that the attorney general has conceded was false," said Jimmy S. McBirney, an Orrick lawyer.

Investigators in 1997 concluded that the fire was set based on markers now known to be present in accidental blazes. Souliotes, a Greek immigrant, was quickly arrested, and prosecutors charged that he had burned the house for financial gain.

An eyewitness also told investigators she had seen Souliotes' camper truck at the scene of the blaze shortly before it erupted. A federal magistrate who examined the evidence later ruled that the witness lacked credibility.

The state attorney general's office has conceded that the scientific evidence used to convict Souliotes has been discredited and admitted that the state could not prove whether the fire was accidental or deliberately set.

Souliotes had to prove his innocence before he was permitted to appeal his conviction because a previous lawyer had missed a legal deadline. Both Ishii and the magistrate who presided over an innocence hearing found that no reasonable juror would have found Souliotes guilty given the state of evidence today.

In her press release, Fladager said Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris' office believed there was a "very good chance" that the federal court's order would be overturned on appeal. Without a retrial, the state would have to release Souliotes pending the appeal.

Aleka Pantazis, Souliotes' sister, said Tuesday she found the decision incomprehensible. "I have a feeling they want to save face," she said, crying.

The Glendale woman was instrumental in getting evidence retested and arranged to have a former polygraph examiner for the FBI test her brother. The examiner found he was truthful when he said he had nothing to do with the fire.

Souliotes is in poor health and walks with a cane. No decision has been made about who will represent him at trial, but his appellate lawyers said they would continue to work for his release.

"We are absolutely committed to ending our client's unjust incarceration, and we have no intention of abandoning his case before we accomplish that," McBirney said.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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