Man sentenced to life in prison will get to argue his innocence
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 persuade 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. A scientist years later showed that the substance on the shoes was different from what was found at the fire. That evidence proves 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 ended in 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.
A federal trial judge had thrown out Souliotes’ appeal because his defense team filed it five days after the deadline.
Linda Starr, legal director of Santa Clara University’s Northern California Innocence Project, said she was gratified that the appeals court resuscitated her client’s case but would appeal the portion of the ruling that limited Souliotes’ claims.
“It is an uphill battle showing actual innocence, not because he isn’t actually innocent, but because the standard is impossibly high,” Starr said.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Kathleen A. McKenna, who argued the case for the prosecution, was unavailable for comment.