George Souliotes went to prison for three life sentences after he was convicted of arson and murder. Twenty years later, he’s out—after the Northern California Innocence Project proved he didn’t do it.
When it comes to exonerations, there are no easy cases, says Linda Starr, the legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project at the SCU School of Law. Once the gavel goes down, the criminal justice system isn’t built to reverse course quickly, cheaply, or easily—even when new revelations raise troubling questions about whether justice was served.
Yet in the dozen years since Starr and law school professor Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi founded the nonprofit with little more than a yellow legal pad, the NCIP has won 17 “victories,” as they put it, including three in just the first half of 2013. Nearly all these victories are exonerations; reversals on parole and a gun enhancement ruling have also been achieved.
Together, the three recent exonerees served more than 36 years behind bars on false convictions. One, Johnny Williams, was imprisoned 14 years for a rape before DNA testing absolved him. But the case that occupied the project like no other was that of George Souliotes, who walked out of prison in July 2013 after serving more than 16 years of a life sentence for arson and murder.
“The case was in our office for more than 10 years, and it tortured me for that long because it was just such a miscarriage of justice,” says Starr, who is also a clinical professor of law at SCU.
A tragic fire in the night
In 1997, a rental property that Souliotes, a Greek immigrant, owned in Modesto burned to the ground in the middle of the night, killing a mother and her two young children. After two highly publicized trials, at which Souliotes faced the death penalty, he was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.
But his family never gave up, contacting the Innocence Project and leading to the long fight to reverse the case. A DNA test can reveal certainty in seconds. But the Project and its partners had to pry back layers of mistakes—including flawed science, false eyewitness testimony, and ineffective counsel.
The case unraveled as new evidence debunked findings that the blaze was even arson or could be forensically connected to Souliotes’ shoes, the linchpin of the case against him. Last year a federal judge found that Souliotes had shown “actual innocence,” a ruling that eventually led to his release at age 72. “They tried to execute him twice,” Starr told reporters at the time. “He is walking free because they can’t prove their case of arson or homicide, and he didn’t do it.”
If we don’t do this, who will?
Such successes are built on thousands of hours of work, supplied by the project’s own small staff, law firms that provide pro bono representation, and Santa Clara law students, who help with everything from tracking down witnesses in prison to interviewing experts during semester stints in the project.
Patrick Bell J.D. ’14, whose career interest lies in law enforcement, says the project was a major reason he chose Santa Clara for law school. Even someone more likely to be on the other side of a criminal case can learn important lessons from working for the wrongly convicted, he says.
“You’re much more able to realize what can happen, and so you’re aware of how to avoid making the same mistakes,” Bell admits.
There aren’t a lot of takers for such cases. If NCIP doesn’t adopt them, very likely no one will, Starr says. Each year 800 to 1,000 people contact the project in hopes of getting help—a number far exceeding capacity. The project’s usual criteria include: The person must have been convicted in California of a serious felony, and he or she must be serving a substantial prison term. That, and he or she must always be asserting innocence, not challenging a conviction on procedural grounds.
That emphasis on representing the truly innocent provides much of the project’s power with officials, says Franky Carrillo, who knows as well as anyone. In 1991, Carrillo, then 16, was arrested for a drive-by slaying and sentenced to life, based on the testimony of six eyewitnesses, despite his protestations of innocence. While he was in prison, his father died. His baby boy became a man.
The break in his case occurred when the real perpetrator wrote a confession, leading the witnesses—including the victim’s son—to recant, acknowledging that they had been unable to see anything in the dark. Carrillo was released in 2011 after nearly 20 years in prison.
Now a student at Loyola Marymount University, he seems remarkably free of bitterness. He says he doesn’t want to carry that weight. But two years of freedom have done nothing to blunt his thankfulness to the people who rescued him from dying a prisoner.
“What the Innocence Project brought to the table was their reputation,” he says. “I feel such gratitude for what they did for me.”
Since 2004 the NCIP has also been part of the Innocence Network, a collaboration of projects across the United States, Canada, and Australia that Ridolfi co-founded. Last year Ridolfi stepped down from her post co-directing NCIP; she continues teaching as a professor of law at SCU. Filling her shoes on the project now is David Onek, who served as a commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and directed the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice at U.C. Berkeley.