MODESTO — A former landlord who escaped the death penalty but was sentenced to life for a triple murder arson is expected to go free Tuesday after pleading no contest to involuntary manslaughter in the case for failing to maintain a working smoke alarm.
George Souliotes, 72, a Greek immigrant, served more than 16 years in prison for a triple-murder arson in the deaths of Michelle Jones, 31, and her children, 8 and 3. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty, but Souliotes was sentenced instead to life without parole.
On the eve of a retrial, Modesto prosecutors agreed to free Souliotes if he would plead no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter for not maintaining working smoke detectors in his rental property.
Charges that he murdered the tenants or set the fire were dropped, and prosecutors agreed to stop pursuing appeals of a ruling this year by a federal judge who said Souliotes had proved his “actual innocence” and ordered the state to retry or release him.
Souliotes, shackled and dressed in red-and-white-striped prison garb, appeared before Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott T. Steffan on Tuesday morning and entered what is known as an “Alford plea,” so-called because it was defined in a case called North Carolina vs. Alford. It means he denied the truth of the charges but conceded there was sufficient evidence to support them. It has the effect of a guilty plea.
“Although this plea agreement is far from the complete dismissal of charges George wanted and deserved, the deal allows him to be released immediately without enduring the burden and delay of another trial while in custody,” said Jimmy S. McBirney, a lawyer with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which has represented Souliotes without charge.
Prosecutor Dave Harris, the chief deputy Stanislaus County district attorney, declined to comment, saying a statement by his office would be posted online.
The case against Souliotes began to unravel when new evidence was discovered, and the science behind the findings of arson was debunked.
“He is walking free because they can’t prove their case of arson or homicide, and he didn’t do it,” said Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project run by Santa Clara University. “They tried to execute him twice.”
She described the result as “bittersweet” but one that avoided a three-month jury trial and possibly years of appeals.