Out of prison and into the unknown

George Souliotes spent nearly 17 years behind bars before his triple murder conviction was overturned. Now he’s trying to adjust to life on the outside.

or the first several days of his freedom, George Souliotes kept forgetting to zip up his trousers. Prison jumpsuits don’t have zippers.

The 72-year-old left lights on at night, unaccustomed to having control over a light switch.

He stiffened whenever he accidentally brushed up against someone. Bumping into another prisoner could get him stabbed.

He had spent nearly 17 years behind bars for a triple murder conviction. A federal judge overturned the conviction after an innocence hearing, and now Souliotes was having to relearn life.

Most mornings, the Greek immigrant sat in the sunshine at a Glendale park. His son gave him a smartphone, and he labored doggedly over it. “I love the lady who helps me find my way,” he said of the GPS feature. He also signed up for a class to learn how to use a computer.

At St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Souliotes mingled with other Greek immigrants, many of whom had followed his case. People wanted to know about prison, but he didn’t like talking about it.

He wanted to forget the stabbings — he saw 17 in one day during a riot in the yard. He wanted to forget the spaghetti that came in a clump and had to be sliced. He wanted to forget the nights he cried into a towel so no one would hear.

“I want to quit talking about these things,” he said. “The past is gone.”

Freedom came to Souliotes on July 3.

Convicted of setting a fire that killed three of his tenants, Souliotes entered prison a middle-aged man, his wavy brown hair starting to recede. When he left, his hair was gray and mostly gone, his posture stooped and his gait marked by a limp from a bad hip. He was divorced, and his children were grown.

An innocence project accepted his case 10 years ago, and private lawyers from big-name firms worked pro bono to overturn his conviction. The forensic evidence used to convict him was reexamined, and much was discredited.

No matter what, I have to explain that I was a prisoner. … They look at you with that fear.”

— George Souliotes

Michelle Jones, 30, and her two children, Daniel Jr., 6, and Amanda, 3, tenants in Souliotes’ Modesto rental home, died when the house erupted in flames as they slept. Daniel Jones Sr., the husband and father, was not home at the time. Souliotes had been days away from serving the Joneses with an eviction notice and garnishing their wages for unpaid rent.

Prosecutors, seeking the death penalty, had argued that Souliotes burned the house for insurance money and maintained that a petroleum substance on his shoes matched a compound that ignited the fire. “The shoes tell the tale,” the trial prosecutor told jurors. Souliotes was sentenced to life without parole. Years later a scientist proved there was no match.

The federal judge who decided Souliotes had shown “actual innocence” overturned his conviction on the grounds his trial lawyer had failed him.

After the ruling, prosecutors wanted to retry him for murder, but the state conceded during the appeal that it could not prove the fire was deliberately set, and a second conviction appeared unlikely.

In return for his immediate release, Souliotes pleaded no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter for failing to maintain working smoke detectors. The house had a smoke alarm, but the victims died of smoke inhalation.

The legal odyssey was over, but Souliotes’ journey back to life was just beginning.

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Our mission is to create opportunities for the exonerated and give them a fair chance at true freedom and success after they so wrongfully had it taken from them. Exonerees who finish our program will obtain sustainable jobs, create community, foster healthy social relationships and gain the skills necessary to fulfill their dreams."