Magistrate recommends release of inmate in triple murder arson case
A federal magistrate has recommended the release of a prison inmate serving life without parole for a triple murder arson, ruling the man received a “fundamentally unfair” trial because of his lawyer’s “unprofessional” conduct and failure to mount an adequate defense.
The magistrate’s 93-page decision followed a ruling last year that the inmate, George Souliotes, 72, had proved “actual innocence” and that no reasonable juror would have convicted him given the state of the evidence today.
The scientific testimony used to convict Souliotes in the deadly 1997 house fire has since been discredited, and prosecutors have conceded they cannot prove whether the blaze was deliberate or accidental.
Souliotes, a Greek immigrant who walks with a cane and suffers from poor health, has been behind bars for 16 years for killing Michelle Jones, 31, and her children, Daniel Jones Jr., 8, and Amanda, 3, in a fire at a Modesto house Souliotes rented to them.
In ruling for Souliotes, U.S. Magistrate Michael J. Seng said the performance of Souliotes’ lawyer severely undermined the court’s confidence in the verdict. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for Souliotes during two trials.
During the second trial, Souliotes’ defense lawyer promised jurors they would hear from certain witnesses and then failed to call them, resting after the prosecution concluded its presentation and never explaining to jurors why the witnesses were not called.
A defense lawyer’s “strategic decisions are given deference,” Seng wrote. But a lawyer’s “‘bold’ trial strategy of presenting no witnesses and no defense…cannot be justified.”
Souliotes’ efforts to appeal his conviction were complicated by the failure of his former attorney to meet a filing deadline. Because of the missed deadline, Souliotes was required to prove his innocence before a court would even consider his claim that he had been poorly represented at trial.
Aleka Pantazis, Souliotes’ sister, said Thursday she fears her brother might die in prison.
“The most courageous thing for the state to do is to realize that it has been a mistake,” said Pantazis, 65, a Glendale resident. “They have to let it go.”
Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris has 14 days to object to the ruling, which must still be approved by a federal district judge.
Deputy Attorney General Kathleen A. McKenna said Thursday she disagreed with the magistrate’s findings and planned to object.
Souliotes was convicted after Modesto fire investigators determined the blaze was deliberately set, based on a variety of factors that are now known to occur in accidental fires. Prosecutors also presented evidence that a petroleum substance found on Souliotes' shoes matched a compound that ignited the fire.
The prosecutor told jurors the match was “the most conclusive scientific evidence of his guilt."
"The shoes tell the tale," he said in closing arguments.
But a fire scientist years later determined the substance on the shoes was chemically different from the fire debris, a finding that prosecutors do not now dispute.
-- Maura Dolan in San Francisco
Photo: Aleka Pantazis poses in 2010 with boxes of evidence
and court documents from her brother George Souliotes' court case. Credit: Bret Hartman / For The Times