Northern California Innocence Project client George Souliotes walked out of a Stanislaus County Jail Wednesday a free man, after his attorneys from NCIP, Morrison & Foerster, LLP and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP successfully negotiated an agreement to secure his immediate freedom following 16 years of wrongful incarceration. Souliotes was wrongfully convicted of arson and triple murder in 2000 and sentenced to three life terms without parole. This agreement confirms his exoneration of arson and murder.
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 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 agreement announced Tuesday, 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. “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 “First, the judge excluded the testimony of a highly unreliable prosecution witness and second, he excluded the outdated and faulty fire science introduced at the original trial.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 has represented Souliotes for over ten years with the pro bono assistance of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. 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. The Morrison & Foerster trial team was supported in the state court proceedings by NCIP and the Orrick team that secured Souliotes’ federal habeas victory. NCIP cannot thank these firms enough for their commitment to justice being done in this case.
This is NCIP’s 17th victory since its creation in 2001.