“Innocent” Man, Convicted of Arson 15 Years Ago, Still Stuck in Prison

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


A federal judge has upheld a finding by a magistrate that a Modesto man—locked up for 15 years after being convicted in a deadly arson fire—is innocent, but he’ll have to remain in prison while appealing his original conviction on technical grounds.

George Souliotes, 72, was found guilty of setting a fire in 1997 that killed a mother and two children he was trying to evict from a rental home he owned. The alleged motive was insurance money. His first trial ended deadlocked at 11-1 for conviction. The jury at a second trial found him guilty and recommended a life sentence.

Key evidence against him involved fire conditions then thought by scientists to be proof of arson but that are now considered present during accidental fires. For decades, fire investigators thought that certain burn patterns involving melted steel, tiny cracks in glass and certain markings to be evidence of arson. Other evidence, including an eye witness report and chemical traces on Souliotes’ shoes, was subsequently discounted.

Magistrate Michael J. Seng wrote in his formal opinion in April that “this court lacks confidence” in the guilty verdict, setting the stage for Chief U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii to proclaim Souliotes’ “actual innocence” last week and allow for an appeal to be filed. Legal deadlines have passed for requesting a reversal on its merits, so Souliotes’ lawyer will challenge the conviction on other grounds, including inadequate legal representation.

A heated debate and reappraisal of the science behind arson convictions was ignited by the 2004 execution in Texas of Todd Willingham for the arson murders of his wife and three children. The Chicago Tribune published an investigative series on flaws in the forensic science and two years later the Innocence Project commissioned an independent review of the case that concluded all of the arson indicators were “scientifically proven to be invalid.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Inmate Was Innocent in Fatal Arson Case, Judge Rules (by Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times)

Man Convicted of Setting Fatal Arson Fire Wins Right to Try to Prove Innocence (by Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times)

Landlord Seeks Third Trial in Murders (by Jeff Jardine, Modesto Bee)

Trial by Fire—Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man? (by David Grann, The New Yorker)

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