Eastern District of California Throws Out Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Modesto County Officials in Wrongful Conviction Case

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On January 15,1997, a rental home in Modesto, California owned by George Souliotes burned down, killing tenant Michelle Jones and her two children. Authorities arrested Souliotes, charging him with three counts of homicide and one count of arson.

At trial, fire investigators from the Modesto County Fire Department testified that the fire was caused by arson. They relied on several factors to support their conclusion: the fire being unusually hot; “pour patterns” on the floor where flammable liquids obviously had been poured and ignited; “deep charring” on the walls; insufficient fuel load in the house to sustain such an intense fire unless an ignitable liquid, i.e., an accelerant, had been added; a hand-held hydrocarbon detector indicated the presence of ignitable liquids at the scene; and an eyewitness testified that a suspicious person had surreptitiously visited the house just before the fire started. Further, the chemical compound on Souliotes’ shoe was the same chemical compound found at the scene. In March of 1999, Souliotes’ first trial ended in a mistrial with the jury leaning 11-1 for conviction. A second trial, in May of 2000, resulted in a guilty verdict and Souliotes was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Souliotes maintained his innocence. Assisted by the Northern California Innocence Project, he fought his conviction. A criminalist, chemist and arson investigator, John Lentini, was able to prove that the chemical found on Souliotes’ shoe was not the same as was found at the scene. Further, advances in fire science demonstrated that the evidence the fire department relied on to “prove” arson was no longer considered reliable. In April of 2013, a judge vacated the convictions and returned the case to the lower court for a retrial. Instead of facing another lengthy trial, Souliotes pled no contest to involuntary manslaughter for failing to maintain smoke detectors in his rental home and was released.

In April of 2015, Souliotes filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Modesto, its police and fire departments and individual investigators who worked the case, for deprivations of his constitutional rights related to the criminal investigation that led to his 16-year incarceration. With respect to fire science, Souliotes alleged that specific defendants “fabricated” evidence. Specifically, Souliotes alleged the defendants were aware that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards in place at the time of the investigation indicated that there was no credible evidence that the fire was the result of arson.

In Souliotes v. City of Modesto, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144398 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 18, 2016), the court held that it was not enough for the plaintiff to allege that defendants ignored NFPA standards in their investigation. Rather, he was required to show how NFPA standards, if utilized, would have made clear to the defendants that the fire was not the result of arson. The Court held that the facts, as alleged, demonstrated inadequate training, not an intent to deceive.

Due to advances in fire science, many arson convictions are being examined with a few being overturned. These overturned convictions, however, rarely result in the civil liability of fire or police officials. Significantly, as demonstrated in Souliotes, investigators’ reliance on now debunked theories to support an arson conviction is not enough to show a violation of a defendant’s due process rights.

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