A man who served 16 years in prison for a triple-murder arson walked out of jail Wednesday afternoon, weeping, hugging family members and telling reporters he just wanted to see the sun.

George Souliotes, 72,  who had been sentenced to life without parole for starting a 1997 house fire that killed three of his tenants, was released under a plea agreement following a federal judge’s decision to overturn his convictions

With tears streaming down his face, Souliotes, dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt and beige slacks, gave a little bow to the waiting crowd, hugged his sister, his two sons and his attorneys and told reporters that he most wanted to “see the sun,”  said Jimmy S. McBirney, a lawyer at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which has represented Souliotes without charge for nearly a decade.

A Modesto judge ordered Souliotes to be released Tuesday morning, but prison officials did not complete the paperwork until Wednesday afternoon.  Souliotes’ freedom was the third release won this year by the Northern California Innocence Project, based at Santa Clara University.

The Greek immigrant’s  family and attorneys had kept a vigil at the Modesto jail since Tuesday morning,  uncertain precisely when he would walk out.  The lawyers eventually obtained a second court order to have him released, but by then, state prison officials had lifted their hold.

Souliotes,  a licensed contractor who is in failing health, plans to live with his sister’s family in Glendale.

The case against him unraveled after a federal judge ruled that he had shown “actual innocence” and received incompetent representation in the death penalty trial that ended in his conviction.  

Just days before a scheduled retrial,  Modesto prosecutors dropped the murder and arson charges. In return,  Souliotes agreed to plead “no contest” to three counts of involuntary manslaughter for failing to maintain working smoke detectors in the rental home where three tenants, Michelle Jones, 31, and her children, Daniel, 8, and  Amanda, 3, perished.

The cause of the fire was never established, though experts have postulated that it might have started with a faulty stove or water heater.

[Updated at 5:55 p.m. Wednesday, July 3: Daniel Jones, the husband and father of the victims, told the Modesto Bee on Tuesday that he had wanted to proceed to trial, and thought Souliotes should not be released. "I know damn well he did it," Jones told the Bee. "The federal judge screwed everything up." Jones said he is hoping to collect a $5.2-million judgment awarded to him after Souliotes' earlier conviction.]

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