72-year-old George Souliotes was convicted of arson (CA Penal Code §451 – malicious arson) and murder (under the “felony murder rule”) over 16 years ago. Though he maintained his innocence in the incident – the deaths of three of his tenants in an apartment building he owned (6-year-old Daniel Jones, 3-year old Amanda Jones, and their mother Michelle, 31). Witnesses in the original case testified that Souliotes harbored animosity toward the family, who he was trying to evict. Evidence at that time included the presence of a particular chemical on his shoes and at the scene and undependable eyewitness testimony that placed him in the apartment complex just before the fire. After two different trials – one of which ended in a hung jury and the other which resulted in his conviction – the Santa Clara University Law School branch of the Innocence Project took the case on.
When the group of law students began investigating, they wanted to revaluate the evidence against Souliotes, including the state criminalist’s testimony that the flammable liquid on his shoes matched what they believed to be the origin point of the blaze. By 2005, they were able to prove, through chemical testing, that the liquid on the shoes was not at all the same as the flammable liquid that had led to that fateful night’s conflagration. Since this new evidence has arisen, Souliotes has been rightly released – and informed by a federal judge that his original set of defense attorneys were incompetent, as they had called no witnesses to testify on his behalf during the second trial. It seems as if someone should apologize for the pain and suffering that Souliotes has gone through over the years, but District Attorney Birgit Fladager has stated that her office will make no such move – especially since, despite the overwhelming evidence, she still holds on to the belief that the man is guilty.