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Appeals court gives another chance to man convicted in arson that killed three

September 20, 2010 |  5:08 pm

A prisoner serving a life sentence for setting an arson fire that killed three people received a chance to prove his innocence Monday after an appeals' court considered new scientific evidence in the case.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revived an appeal by George A. Souliotes, convicted of setting a 1997 fire that killed a woman and her two children, even though his lawyers missed a legal deadline in filing it.

The panel gave Souliotes the opportunity to try to convince a trial judge that he could not have discovered new scientific evidence that supported his innocence any earlier. If the judge agrees, Souliotes could then try to prove his innocence.

Souliotes' prosecution relied heavily on evidence that the fire was started with a flammable liquid and that its residues were found on Souliotes' shoes. Years later a scientist showed that the substance on the shoes was different from what was found at the fire. That evidence proves that Souliotes is innocent, his lawyers argued.

But in a loss for Souliotes, the 9th Circuit limited his appeal, ruling 2 to 1 that the missed deadline barred him from presenting other claims, including his contention that his defense lawyers at trial were inadequate.

Judge Thomas S. Zilly, in a partial dissent, called Souliotes' claims "compelling" and complained that proving actual innocence under the law was nearly impossible.

An innocence claim alone requires "an 'extraordinarily high' showing," Zilly wrote, quoting a precedent, "stronger than what is required to establish insufficiency of the evidence to convict and going beyond demonstrating doubt about guilt."

Zilly contended that the Greek immigrant also should be allowed to challenge his conviction on incompetent counsel.

During Souliotes' first trial, which resulted in a hung jury, defense lawyers called 14 witnesses, Zilly said. During the second, which led to his conviction, the same lawyers called only one witness, who had testified for the prosecution in the previous trial.

Souliotes, 69, a landlord in Modesto, was convicted of killing his tenants, Michelle Jones, and her two children, Daniel Jr. and Amanda. They died of smoke inhalation. The prosecution contended that Souliotes was in debt and set the fire for insurance money.

-- Maura Dolan