George Souliotes Finds Justice but Must Wait One More Night Before Finding Freedom

In order to be released from custody after spending 16 years in prison for an accidental fire misidentified as arson, George Soulitoes entered an Alford plea to involuntary manslaughter for negligently maintaing the smoke alarm in the rental property where a mother and her two young children died in a fire in 1997.  The superior court judge ordered his immediate release from custody.

It’s not clear if the prosecutor’s insistence on a no-contest plea to something in exchange for dropping the arson and murder charges was simply a dark and pathetic attempt to save face or a cynical ploy to stop Souliotes, now 72-years-old and in poor health, from seeking civil damages from the county that perpetrated the wrongful arson conviction, or some sick combination of the two.

What is certain is that Souliotes’ original conviction was based on indisputably unreliable fire pattern analysis straight out of the Todd Willingham playbook.  In an exceptional example of how cognitive bias and poor forensic training can turn an amateurish fire investigation into a full fledged witch hunt, Modesto Fire Department investigators determined the fire to be arson based on “pour patterns”, deep charring and a fire which burned “abnormally hot”.  That the house fire burned beyond flashover for nearly 15 minutes was never acknowledged as a likely cause for any of the burn indicators the fire investigators attributed to an ignitable liquid.

For George Souliotes to finally receive this measure of justice is a testament to the relentless efforts of the Northern California Innocence Project and the pro bono work of the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and attorney Jim Brosnahan of Morrison Foester.  The fact that he did not receive the full throated exoneration which he deserves is a testament to a closed-minded prosecutor’s office which has neither the common decency nor the moral courage to admit a horrible mistake.

In a final act of mean spirited political theater, Stanislaus County jail officials refused to release Souliotes on Tuesday afternoon because the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had not released its hold, apparently delaying his release until Wednesday.

Maintaining an unwavering commitment to unreliable evidence and with a certainty borne only of ignorance, Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager was quoted in SF Gate as saying “No one owes Soulitoes an apology of any kind.”

LA Times Article: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-fatal-fire-20130703,0,4306852.story

Modesto Bee Article: http://www.modbee.com/2013/07/02/2789996/accused-modesto-landlord-souliotes.html

SF Gate Article: http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/New-science-frees-Modesto-man-in-arson-murder-case-4643974.php