Hung Jury In Ocean City Manslaughter Case
SNOW HILL — A West Ocean City man, accused of manslaughter in the death of his long-time friend outside a downtown Ocean City bar in January, will have to wait to learn his fate after a jury could not reach a verdict.
George Doran Nottingham, now 48, of West Ocean City, appeared in Worcester County Circuit Court on Wednesday to face charges of manslaughter and second-degree assault in the death of Michael E. Post, 39, of Ocean City. Nottingham was charged earlier this year following what was described as a “playful incident among friends” at the Harbor Inn on Somerset Street on Jan. 26 that ended in tragedy.
Following an emotional trial that took most of the day on Wednesday, a jury deliberated for several hours deep into the evening on Wednesday before returning without a verdict. The hung jury, a diverse group including men and women in a wide variety of ages and races, could not come to a clear decision in the friendly altercation that went terribly wrong and a new trial will be scheduled.
Around 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 26, Nottingham and Post were among other friends at the Harbor Inn when Nottingham dropped his cell phone on the bar floor. Post and others scooped up the dropped phone and kept it from Nottingham as he became more and more agitated. At one point, bar surveillance video shows Nottingham throwing bar stools, a move the prosecution characterized as rage and the defense characterized as Nottingham simply looking on the bar floor for his phone.
The bartender, Herbert “Buddy” Groff, intervened when a pushing and shouting match ensued between Nottingham and Post, an altercation he characterized on Wednesday as horseplay between long-time friends, and instructed Post to go out the front door and Nottingham to remain behind for a few minutes in an attempt to diffuse the situation.
Post did go out the front door and lingered around, while Nottingham remained inside. About five minutes later, when it appeared the tensions had cooled, Nottingham went out the front door and ultimately swatted or slapped Post in the head with his left hand, causing Post to fall to the sidewalk and strike his head. The force of the fall caused a fracture of Post’s skull and he suffered a subdural hematoma that ultimately claimed his life on the icy, snow-covered sidewalk in front of the bar.
The Harbor Inn’s 16 high-tech video cameras inside and outside of the establishment captured the entire episode and there was little doubt after viewing the sequence pieced together chronologically by the Ocean City Police Department forensic team of the events that led to Post’s death. What was at issue for the jury was the intent and whether it fit comfortably into the definition of manslaughter. After hearing testimony all day on Wednesday and deliberating for hours, the12-member panel could not reach a decision and a new trial will be scheduled.
In his opening statement, Deputy State’s Attorney William McDermott, who teamed with State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby on the prosecution, painted a grim picture of the victim and his friend following the altercation.
“Michael Post was the healthy 39-year-old man who was out on the night before his birthday with friends,” said McDermott. “Soon thereafter, he was lying on his back on a cold, icy sidewalk gasping for his last breath while George Nottingham stood over him.”
McDermott said the case that began as an altercation between two friends presented challenges, but the camera images made a final decision clear.
“This case is unusual and unique, probably unlike any I’ve ever seen,” he said. “These cases are usually about controversy and which side of the story is more believable. Thanks to 16 cameras in and around the Harbor Inn, you’re going to see exactly what happened.”
McDermott said the incident started out as a joke among friends when Post took Nottingham’s cell phone. “Then you’ll see Nottingham become quickly enraged and throw three bar stools,” he said. “There is a brief fight and the bartender breaks it up and instructs Michael Post to go out the front door and George Nottingham to go out the back door.”
According to McDermott, Nottingham then went out the front door and struck Post, causing him to fall to the ground and strike his head.
“About 10 minutes later, George Nottingham goes out and sucker punches Michael Post with a left hook,” he said. “Michael Post fell on the concrete and hit his head so hard he fractured his skull. He was lying on the concrete gasping for life and soon there was a mother without a son and a daughter without a father. The facts of this case match up with a law that is unambiguous.”
In his opening statement, defense attorney Mike Fowler painted a similar picture of the events, which, after all were clear on the video, but differed from the state’s case in terms of intent.
“This case is about tragedy,” he said. “There is no other way to look at it. When you look at the video, you’ll see an altercation inside and you’ll see George Nottingham yelling and Michael Post pushing him away.”
Fowler said Post had ample opportunity to just walk away and call it a night, but lingered around the bar waiting, ostensibly, for Nottingham to come out.
“Michael Post walks away from the bar and walks toward his girlfriend’s car,” he said. “He then turns around and walks back toward the bar. You’ll see Michael Post looking through the window and you’ll see him push open the bar door and extend his middle finger toward the bar.”
Fowler somewhat painted Post as the aggressor even after it appeared the situation had been diffused.
“Moments before George Nottingham comes out, Michael Post turns his head toward the door,” he said. “Look at his arms. A person at ease has his arms at his side, but the video shows Michael Post with his arms raised as he turns toward the front door. It’s clear in the video Michael Post is squared up in a fighting posture as George Nottingham comes out the door. It’s clear in the video. Michael Post was several inches taller and probably 100 pounds heavier than George Nottingham. Any reasonable person faced with that would try to get the first punch in.”
For those reasons, Fowler asserted, Nottingham should not be found guilty of manslaughter or assault.
“He’s not guilty of either of those,” he said. “This was an accident. Michael Post should have just gone away, but he was ready to fight. This was not excessive. There was no bringing a gun to a knife fight, or a knife to a fist fight.”
During his testimony, Groff outlined the events leading up to the final blow while the jury was viewing the video sequence. Groff explained Nottingham was looking for his cell phone and Post and his other friends were playing a joke on him by concealing it. He explained there was some pushing and shoving he characterized as “horseplay” and Nottingham was agitated, but not extremely angry. When the situation did not quietly go away, Groff decided to intervene and attempted to put an end to it.
“At 1:40 a.m., it was close enough to closing time that I had had enough of it,” he said. “I called last call and had Michael Post go out the front door and … go out the back door. George stayed behind for a few minutes because I didn’t want him to immediately follow Michael Post out and also he still had to pay his check. I’m thinking, that’s it, that’s the end of the evening.”
Groff said Nottingham stayed behind for about five minutes as Post remained outside the front of the bar. Finally, Groff said Nottingham said, “I’m done with the whole thing and I just want to go home.” With that said, Nottingham went out the front door. A few seconds later, Nottingham came back in the front door of the bar and said, according to Groff, “look at him now, he’s passed out.”
Groff said Nottingham gave no indication he was going to go out the front door and seek an altercation with Post.
“After Post went out, George was not angry or even agitated,” he said. “He just finished his drink and paid. There was no ‘I’m going to get him’ or anything like that. I was comfortable with George’s demeanor and believed the whole thing was over with for the night.”
Groff said he went out and looked at Post and then came back in and called 911. He said Post was unresponsive and lying on his back with shallow breathing and making a snoring noise. According to the 911 tape played during trial, Groff told the dispatcher “somebody slipped and fell and is not breathing well,” and “I don’t know if he fell or passed out or what.”
Groff asked Nottingham if he saw Post slip or fall, to which Nottingham allegedly said, “I would never do that. He is my best friend. I went out and he was already on the ground and I swear I never touched him.”