Plea Deal Wins Release for Landlord Accused of Arson

Daily Newspaper shutterstock_1272343108Attorneys for George Souliotes, the 72-year-old landlord whose arson conviction was recently overturned after he served 16 years in prison, have won his release.

According to a statement by his lawyers, Souliotes was wrongfully convicted of arson and triple murder in 2000 and sentenced to three life terms without parole.

In 2012, two federal judges found Souliotes “actually innocent” and concluded that his conviction was based on faulty fire science. Earlier this year, the same federal court also found Souliotes initially had received ineffective assistance of counsel at his trial and ordered him released within 30 days unless the State took concrete and substantial steps to retry him before July 10, 2013. The State announced it would retry Souliotes, and a retrial had been set to begin on July 8.

Under the terms of the prison release agreement, Souliotes pled no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter for failure to maintain a working smoke alarm as required by the California Health and Safety Code. The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) at Santa Clara University School of Law, Morrison & Foerster LLP and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP were instrumental in securing his release from prison. “Mr. Souliotes and his defense team maintain his absolute innocence and his decision to plead no contest to failure to maintain smoke alarms does not change that,” said Linda Starr, NCIP’s Legal Director. “He chose to resolve the case before the retrial scheduled for next month, so that he may return home to his family and friends immediately.”

“Mr. Souliotes’ retrial reached a turning point in recent weeks when a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge excluded the prosecution’s key witness, as well as their forensic evidence, after determining both pieces of evidence were unreliable,” said Jim Brosnahan, lead defense attorney from Morrison & Foerster. “First, the judge excluded the testimony of a highly unreliable prosecution witness and second, he excluded the outdated and faulty fire science introduced at the original trial. Without this false evidence the truth was revealed that there was simply nothing linking Mr. Souliotes to this tragic fire.”

“The plea agreement exonerates Mr. Souliotes of the arson and murder charges he was wrongfully convicted of and further confirms the federal court’s finding that he is completely innocent of those crimes,” said Jimmy McBirney, Souliotes’ lead attorney in the federal habeas proceedings from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. “This case should not have proceeded in state court at all, and we hope those responsible for ensuring justice will take greater care in examining other convictions based on outdated and discredited scientific evidence.”

NCIP represented Souliotes for over ten years with the pro bono assistance of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP. After a federal court judge ordered a retrial, an experienced trial team from Morrison & Foerster, led by Jim Brosnahan, volunteered to provide Souliotes’ defense and ultimately negotiated his release.

SOURCE: Morrison & Foerster LLP

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