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Northern California Innocence Project Wins Conviction Reversal for Innocent Man
Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2013
Federal Court Judge Orders George Souliotes Be Released After 16 Years in Prison, Wrongfully Convicted of Arson and Triple Murder Based on Faulty Fire Science
In granting his release, District Judge Anthony W. Ishii found Souliotes had received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. That finding came a year after his attorneys persuaded the judge of Souliotes’ “actual innocence,” successfully arguing his conviction was based on faulty fire science and that no reasonable juror today would convict him.
The judge ordered his release unless the State of California not only notifies the court that it intends to retry Souliotes, but also takes concrete and substantial steps to do so within 30 days. The order does not specify when he is to be released, but his attorneys expect it to be within 30 days.
“After more than 10 years of fighting for Mr. Souliotes’ freedom we are gratified that the court has found him innocent and ordered his release,” said Linda Starr, NCIP’s legal director. “Mr. Souliotes’ conviction was a tragedy, and we now know it was based on faulty fire science that has since been discredited. We hope the California Attorney General will honor the judge’s ruling and not take any further action that might needlessly delay Mr. Souliotes’ long overdue return home.”
On January 15, 1997, a rental property owned by Souliotes in Modesto, Calif., 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. These facts persuaded Judge Ishii that Souliotes had satisfied the “actual innocence” standard and was entitled to proceed with his ineffective assistance of counsel claims, which were otherwise barred by procedural restrictions.
“It has been an incredibly long road, but we are very happy to be nearing the end of it,” said Jimmy McBirney, Souliotes’ attorney from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. “Mr. Souliotes has always maintained his innocence, and the evidence has now proven it. There is absolutely no basis for a retrial, and we look forward to seeing him set free.”
This is the third innocent person NCIP has exonerated in 2013, and its 17th victory since its creation in 2001.
About the Northern California Innocence Project
About Santa Clara University School of Law