Modesto man convicted in arson deaths can pursue appeal
A Modesto man sentenced to life in prison for setting a house fire that killed his three tenants has provided enough evidence of his innocence to pursue federal appeals, a U.S. magistrate ruled Thursday.
Federal Magistrate Michael J. Seng, who examined the evidence against George Souliotes during a four-day hearing in Fresno in January, concluded that no reasonable juror would have found the Greek immigrant guilty of arson given the state of the evidence now.
Fire scientists have discredited evidence that was used to convict Souliotes, and the state has conceded that it no longer can prove the deadly 1997 blaze was deliberately set.
"This court lacks confidence" in the guilty verdict, Seng wrote.
A federal judge must review and uphold Seng’s conclusion before Souliotes, 71, can challenge his conviction on other grounds, including incompetent legal representation.
Michelle Jones, 31, and her children -- Daniel Jones Jr., 8, and Amanda, 3 -- perished in the fire.
-- Maura Dolan in San Francisco