The Michael George Murder Case

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Michael George, founder of the Pittsburgh Comicon and only suspect of the 17 year old murder case of Barbara George, his first wife, was found guilty of the crime in Michigan. I'm not here to suggest otherwise, because that isn't my job. Guilt or innocence is the providence of the court system. However, I do feel sad for nearly all parties involved. The victim's family has suffered the grief of their lost loved one for almost two decades. That's sad. Michael George's children, pending some legal maneuvering, are going to lose their father to life in prison. That's sad too. This cold case might have been solved swiftly and without national commentary were it not for the Barney Fife ineptitude of the investigating police. I have several friends and family who are police, and they undoubtedly suffer by association whenever their brothers bungle a case this badly. That's sad. But the small-town politics that resulted in jumpstarting this case and the shoddy state of journalism in this country, as demonstrated by the uneven and downright insulting coverage of the case isn't only sad, it's pathetic.

I'm going to try to avoid rehashing the events of the crime, because a simple web search will lead you to as much of that as you care to read. Instead I wish to examine the possibility that the legal system has failed in this case. There is a phrase that often comes up in discussions of criminal cases: "Innocent until proven guilty." This means the burden of proof is placed with the prosecution, meaning it is their responsibility to prove a defendant guilty rather than the defendant having to prove his innocence. But this "presumption of innocence" has fallen on hard times. Look at the Duke University lacrosse team case. The accusation of rape was enough to suspend several players and force the resignation of their coach before anything ever went to trial. Eventually all of the charges were dropped, but these students and their coach were already guilty in the eyes of the media and, by extension, the public. Even without a rape conviction on their records, there will be a stigma attached to these people for quite a while.

Let's assume then that going into the trial, Michael George is innocent. He's entitled to be tried before a jury of his peers. Think about that for a moment. I myself have been called before the courts as a prospective juror. The case for which I was selected was a civil case involving an elderly woman who had fallen while entering our local casino. Her attorney told us during the jury selection process that she had fallen in the parking lot, accepted a wheel chair from casino, gambled and lost a sum of money, and then some hours later went to a hospital complaining of pain in her foot. The x-rays taken at that time did not show any sort of fracture. After a couple of weeks she gets another round of x-rays and now her foot has an obvious break, so she sues the casino. How I got picked as her "peer" I will never know. She wasn't a local; if memory serves she was from Illinois (I live in Missouri). I was at least 50 years younger. And I couldn't believe I was going to be missing work for this. She doesn't show a fracture for two weeks after losing money to the one-armed bandits and now suddenly everything was the casino's fault? But I did my civic duty, I listened to the testimony, and I watched with subdued amusement when the judge, at least a half-dozen times during the two days of the trial, attempted to try and help the prosecution save face by pleading with him to drop the case. I could read her lips from the juror's box. He had nothing. I still am unsure as to why the judge couldn't throw it out herself. That jury was perhaps a reasonable collection of her peers. Myself and one woman were pretty young, but everyone else involved was middle aged and up, and there were plenty of women in the jury to represent her gender. Michael George's jury also featured more women than men. I would like to think that these twelve Americans would decide the case solely on the merits of evidence, as I was asked to do (and did) in my case. But I'm also not that naive, and I am amazed that the defense didn't work harder to get at least a 50/50 split of gender. One cannot help but ponder the notion that a woman in the jury might be naturally more sympathetic to the female victim than the male suspect. On jury selection alone, I remain unconvinced that Michael George received a fair trial.

But even if the jury had been comprised completely of women, the prosecution still has to prove he did it. And they couldn't do that for 17 years. Why? Because Mayberry, North Carolina has nothing on Clinton Township, Macomb County, Michigan. From the beginning, the investigators of the case fumbled the ball. They did not check George's hands for gunpowder residue after he arrived at the hospital where Barbara died. Police never put much effort into investigating two suspicious characters in the store shortly before the murder, one of whom was apparently wearing a fake beard. The evidence -- and the prosecution admits this -- is extremely circumstantial. It relies on what they describe as a "witness" who wasn't even present at the scene. This regular customer of the store called somewhere in the timeframe of Barbara's murder and testified that Michael George answered the phone but was in a hurry to get off the line. This contradicts his alibi of being asleep at his mother's home during the time of the murder. Well, I hope it never happens to me. My father and I sound exactly alike on the phone. I'm sure there are thousands of people who sound similar to me on the phone. Was it Michael who answered? Was it someone else? Was the "witness" correct in the time frame he reported or is it possible that he reached George just as he was on his way out of the shop to go to his mother's house at that time, leaving Barbara presumably alive at that point to tend the store? I don't know. I wasn't there. Neither was the "witness." How can you witness a crime and not be at the scene? Am I witness for the O. J. Simpson case? So is the rest of Planet Earth if all I have to do is watch him drive around in a white Bronco on TV. They had no murder weapon. All they have is George's word that he was at his mother's -- and her testimony to that effect -- against the police's witness with a questionable timeframe. Of course, the kicker is that they didn't have the phone call to the store for 17 years. That important fact escaped the attention of the original investigators. Keep in mind this all happened in 1990, and DNA evidence and other advanced forensic processes were not yet available. With no smoking gun and no eye witness, no fingerprints or any hard evidence of any kind, the best they could do was reach for testimonial evidence that could put George at the scene at the time of the murder or at least punch holes in his alibi. Having a bad alibi, I should point out, does not necessarily make someone guilty. My problem with this is that the prosecution's star witness and the whole spine of their argument relies on testimony that was allegedly already in the case file but overlooked for 17 years. It was not discovered until the cold case was reopened and many new interviews were conducted. Is it out of line to suggest that there was some shady police work going on in Clinton Township? That perhaps this important evidence wasn't spotted in 1990 because it wasn't there in 1990?

As I said, I have been around police for much of my life and have a great deal of respect for them on the whole. But there's no denying that humanity has the capacity to do the wrong thing even if the intentions are good. Clinton Township's top cop in 1990 was Chief Robert Smith. He passed away without ever solving this case. His son Eric had followed in his father's footsteps, becoming the elected prosecutor. Eric Smith admits that he initiated the reopening of the cold case files in Macomb County with the George case firmly in mind. I think there's a parallel that can be drawn here. In 1991, then-President George Bush attacked Iraq, first with a concentrated air strike barrage and then with a very brief ground assault. He was criticized for not going further and actually removing Saddam Hussein from power. Fast forward about 10 years and his son, President George W. Bush, returns to Iraq citing Osama bin Laden's terrorist network as the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. Several years later, George Junior has finished what George Senior had begun, and yet bin Laden is still at large. The American people were told one thing but given something else, and in no small part was George Junior's desire to blot out a criticism on his father's record a factor. Every son wants their father to be proud of them. Eric Smith is no exception. But I can't help but wonder if perhaps there's more to this than what has been made public? If the case gnawed at his father as he claims it did, and certainly other detectives had some interest in the case, how is it that nobody saw the testimony of this phone call to the shop until 2007? I'm not saying it's fabricated. I'm not saying it's planted. But doesn't this all seem a bit too convenient? A report that may have sealed the deal 17 years ago suddenly shows up after all this time, and flimsy though it is they run with it and win? There's a little too much here that feels "made-for-TV." I might also point out that even the CBS series Cold Case hasn't always ended in favor of the police. Real life doesn't work that way. But in a place like Macomb County, where hotshot prosecutor Eric Smith is 21 for 21 (5 convictions, 16 pleas of guilt), who worries about how real life works?

Why am I making an issue out of any of this? I have no real stake in the matter. I have met Michael George on one occasion, the 2007 Pittsburgh Comicon, just a few months before the police tracked him down. I was introduced, we shook hands and as both he and current wife Renee were extremely busy I didn't even stay for small talk. I don't know the man. I didn't know he had ever been married to Barbara until the case came to light. I didn't know of his past indiscretions. I wasn't aware of his being a local youth baseball coach. All I knew was that the Georges owned a shop somewhere near Pittsburgh and put on a fantastic convention. So again, I'm not hear to play defense lawyer and tell you he's innocent. I can't say he didn't do it. If he did, then Judge James Biernat got it right and George is in the right place. If he didn't, then maybe the Clinton Township Police have a lot more work to do. Judge Biernat seems less convinced than the jury. When the defense asked for a "directed verdict" (basically asking for the case to be dismissed due to lack of evidence) the judge took 5 hours before deciding to allow the case to continue. The defense attorneys were surprised by this, as usually such requests are decided almost immediately. The defense is now pushing for the judge to overthrow the jury's verdict, which is exceedingly rare in trial cases. But the judge's long deliberation regarding the motion for directed verdict offers the George family some hope, and if he doesn't overturn the jury they can still force the prosecution to make their case again in appeals court. My issue isn't a question of innocent or guilt. My issue is that the NBC Dateline program spent much of two hours interviewing smiling faces, happy to explain how they wanted to win one last battle for their dearly departed father or how weird it was that George displayed a lack of emotion or occasionally bizarre behavior after Barbara's funeral. I've lost people very close to me, but I don't show a lot of emotion in public. I've worn dark glasses at funerals -- I dare say they are fairly common funeral accessories. I internalize my grief and let it out when I'm alone. For people to go on TV and try to paint Michael George as an uncaring monster for the way he handled Barbara's death is deplorable. The jury was given a pretty simple task, all thing considered. They were to determine if the prosecution had shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Michael George was at his store at the time of the murder. That is all they had to do. But on Dateline they talk about how he was obviously having an affair, and probably committed insurance fraud and that the police work made Barney Fife look like Sherlock Holmes. They all claim, on TV, that the adultery and other unsavory details of Michael George's life at the time didn't factor into their decision. But any casual observer, like myself, can connect the dots and see the bigger picture. The prosecution didn't prove anything regarding George's whereabouts on that evening in 1990. They proved that once upon a time, Michael George wasn't a real nice guy, was unhappy in his marriage and prone to flirtation and beyond. None of that warrants life in prison.

It is my belief that Dateline has done a very uneven job of covering this case. Dateline correspondent Dennis Murphy never presses the issue of how the case-clinching phone call managed to elude trained professionals for years. He doesn't follow up on how nearly every aspect of the police investigation was mishandled and allows the mention of suspicious characters who obviously were not Michael George who were present just before the murder to pass by without questioning the investigators on the issue. On a more personal level, I'm extremely tired of how the media portrays the comic book industry on the whole. Dateline's lead graphic was a shot of George's store with a comic-styled graphic plastered over it. Red burst effects attempt to play on the tired "Bam!" and "Pow!" of the 1960s Batman show, but come off as a bit heavy handed in light of the show's content. Perhaps worse still are the attempts throughout the show to give certain shots a comic book feel. Using filters and effects, they make certain footage "look" like a comic book. It's a shame that this industry doesn't get any respect in the media. "Iron Man" is currently the runaway box office leader, and "The X-Men" and "Spider-Man" (yes, Dateline, it's hyphenated, if you'd bother to do a little research) movie franchises have made a ton of money. The comic-related toys, video games, movies and the comics themselves are all part of a strong publishing and multimedia industry. In fact, media giant Time-Warner owns DC Comics. So how is it then that whenever anyone does a "news" show that revolved around comic book readers we're constantly portrayed as socially inept dwellers of our mothers' basements? In fact, what do comics really have to do with this case? Michael George reported some high-dollar comics stolen after the murder but the point is Barbara George was killed. Yes, it happened at a comic shop. If it had happened at a Baskin Robbins would Dateline's graphics have transformed blood splatter to melted strawberry ice cream and would I have sat through 2 hours of one-sided testimonials about Michael George's "rocky road" to Pittsburgh? Nobody was standing up for the defendant. His mother, his current wife, his friends in the Pittsburgh area, other comic industry professionals who knew Michael over the last 17 years, where were their testimonials? Nothing was presented regarding how this whole mess was affecting his children, his livelihood or the state of the Comicon, an even that also raises a very nice sum of money for various charities. Journalism is easy when you take the winner's side, isn't it? In the end, a woman's life was ended, a mother was forever taken away from her children. Doesn't that deserve a little more gravitas than panel borders, faux comic effects and splashy logos provide? Dateline did get one thing right. Barbara certainly didn't deserve her fate. What happened to her and the family and friends affected by her death is a tragedy, and I hope that one day soon their years of anger and remorse will be appeased.

I also hope that justice prevails, and that the right man is convicted of the crime through sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. But after the national media's portrayal of Michael George as the villain in this poorly orchestrated crime caper, even if his legal team manages the rare overthrow of the jury's verdict, a lot of people are going to regard Michael George as a villain. Even if he's eventually cleared of any involvement in the death of his wife, the damage to his reputation, the embarrassment to his children and the negative impact on the convention he founded that brings a great deal of joy to comic fans and professionals -- as well as a significant amount of money to several charities -- will be hard to overcome.