SNOW HILL — A West Ocean City man was found guilty of manslaughter and other charges for his role in the death another local man outside a downtown Ocean City bar in January 2013.
After deliberating for just under an hour on Monday evening, a Worcester County Circuit Court jury returned with guilty verdicts on all counts against George Doran Nottingham, 49, of West Ocean City, including manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and affray. Nottingham was charged in January 2013 for his role in the death of friend Michael Post, 39, outside the Harbor Inn in the early morning hours during what began as a friendly dispute over a swiped cell phone and ended with Nottingham swatting Post outside the door, causing him to fall on the icy, snowy sidewalk. Post suffered a fractured skull during the fall that ultimately caused his death.
The bar’s 16 high-tech video surveillance cameras captured the entire incident from start to finish and the video and still images captured during the altercation painted a clear picture of what happened that fateful night. During the trial, no one disputed Nottingham struck Post, causing him to fall and ultimately fracture his skull. What was in dispute, however, was who was the primary aggressor.
The case was first tried last August, but resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial when the jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict. It was rescheduled and postponed several times over the last year or so before the trial on Monday.
The state portrayed Nottingham as an angry, agitated aggressor who went outside looking for Post several minutes after the dispute had calmed down, while the defense portrayed Post as the main aggressor, who allegedly waited outside for Nottingham to come out. The defense claimed Nottingham went outside only after he believed Post was gone and the incident was over, only to find Post waiting for him outside the bar’s front door. Through both versions runs a thread of truth, but in the end, the video images of Nottingham striking Post and causing him to fall and strike his head could not be overcome and the jury returned guilty verdicts across the board after deliberating for about 50 minutes on Monday. Retired Judge Dale Cathell, who presided over the case, ordered a pre-sentence investigation and Nottingham will likely be sentenced later this summer or early fall.
At the outset, Executive Assistant State’s Attorney William McDermott said while the incident began as a friendly altercation over the hidden cell phone, someone had to be held accountable for Post’s death. He said in his opening statement the bar’s 16 video cameras captured who should accept that responsibility.
“This is a story about responsibility and accountability,” he said. “This is a story about the life and death of Michael Post. I don’t believe George Nottingham intended to kill Michael Post, but he did. There is no question about what happened. The unique thing about this case is that the whole thing happened on video. There are 16 cameras throughout the entire Harbor Inn. [Defense Attorney Mike] Mr. Farlow will tell you it was self-defense, but Michael Post never moved. George Nottingham sucker punched him and he fell and fractured his skull that led to the bleeding on the brain that caused his death.”
In his own opening statement, Farlow painted Post as the aggressor and said his client only reacted to what he perceived to be a threat from Post outside the bar door. Farlow said Post had several opportunities to leave, but continued to lurk outside and wait for Nottingham.
“The video will show Michael Post was the aggressor in the fight,” he said. “Michael Post was walking around outside, walked down the block and stood on the street corner near his car. He was capable of leaving, but he walks back, shaking his fists, and he kicks open the door and flips the bird. He then walks and stands in front of the door, lying in wait. When Mr. Nottingham comes out, Michael Post had turned toward the door with his fists already set.”
Farlow said Nottingham stayed behind after Post had left and paid his bill and chatted with the bartender, Herbert “Buddy” Groff, and did not exhibit any signs he thought the confrontation was ongoing.
One of the first witnesses on the stand for the state was Assistant Maryland Medical Examiner Dr. Donna Vincente, who explained Post had suffered a fractured skull that caused a subdural hematoma, or bleeding on the brain, that ultimately caused his demise.
“In my expert opinion, the cause of death was a head injury and the manner of death was homicide,” she said.
The OCPD officers who responded were the next to testify and explained the timeline of the events. Officer Greg Eastman and Officer Neshawn Jubilee said Nottingham first told them Post had slipped and fallen, which caused his injuries, and was helpful and concerned at first. However, things changed when it became known the bar had a high-tech video surveillance system inside and out.
“When George Nottingham became aware of the video cameras, his demeanor changed,” said Eastman. “We went from calm and helpful to angry all of the sudden and asked to leave.”
Jubilee agreed with Eastman’s assessment of Nottingham following the incident.
“His demeanor changed after he learned there was video,” he said. “He didn’t want to help anymore. He just wanted to leave.”
When the state had finished presenting its case, Farlow made a motion for acquittal on all counts.
“My argument all along has been self-defense and the evidence presented thus far shows that,” he said.
Not so fast, said McDermott, who said the video evidence clearly showed Nottingham was the aggressor.
“I hardly agree,” he said. “The second-degree assault, the reckless endangerment and the affray are clearly captured in the video.”
Farlow opened his case by calling Groff to the stand. Groff explained the situation began as three friends, including Post, Nottingham and Robert Jackson, arguing playfully over the missing cell phone.
“They were just three friends drinking and kidding around and playing,” he said. “They had taken George’s phone and he was aggravated and frustrated about that.”
Groff briefly took control of the situation, instructing Post to go out the front door and Jackson to go out the back door, while keeping Nottingham behind to settle his bill and let the tensions calm. After several minutes, Nottingham was ready to go out and Groff believed there was no imminent danger of the fight reigniting.
“He was calm and assured me he was going home,” he said. “Enough time had passed when it appeared the situation was over and I was fine with that.”
In his cross examination of Groff, MrDermott pointed out how Nottingham had come back inside and said Post had slipped and fallen without any mention of the fateful physical contact.
“When George Nottingham came back in, he lied,” said McDermott. “He said he never touched him. He didn’t even know he hit him until he saw the video.”
In some of the most dramatic testimony of the day, Farlow called Nottingham to the stand to recount his version of the events. Nottingham said Post had contacted him earlier about going out to celebrate Post’s birthday and he met him at the Harbor Inn.
“In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t gone,” he said. “My phone went missing and it escalated. Just prior to that, we were hugging and laughing. It just went bad. I thought he was gone. I honestly thought it was all over with.”
Nottingham said he was surprised to find the 6’3”, 350-pound Post waiting for him just outside the door and said Post “grimaced” and made a motion like he was going to strike him.
“When I walked out, I didn’t expect him to be there,” he said. “He clenched up like he was getting ready to hit me and I pushed him out of the way. I had gloves in my hand, so I wouldn’t have punched him with gloves in my hand.”
Nottingham said he didn’t intend to strike Post with violence, but merely wanted to defend himself.
“It happened so quick,” he said. “All I was trying to do was get him away from me. It was a glancing blow. If I wanted to hit him, I would have hit him with my right hand.”
On cross examination, McDermott questioned Nottingham’s somewhat selective memory of the events and said his testimony could not be trusted because he had changed his story so many times.
“You lied to Buddy Groff at least 20 times,” he said. “You lied to Officer Jubilee, to Officer Eastman, to Robert Jackson and to Will Wilkins. You lied to at least six people. Why should we believe anything you say?”
In the end, it all came back to the video surveillance images of the entire incident from inside and out, according to McDermott.
“But for these cameras, but for this particular camera, we would not be here today,” he said. “He would have come back in and said Michael Post slipped and fell and that would have been the end of it. Nobody would have known. But for this camera, George Nottingham would have residual guilt for the rest of his life, but at least he gets to live.”
With that said, the jury got their final instructions and began deliberating around 5:15 p.m. They returned about 50 minutes later with a guilty verdict across the board on all counts. One juror, who preferred to remain anonymous, said this week it was not a difficult decision for the 12-member panel, including seven males and five females, and 10 white jurors and two African-American jurors.
“It was pretty much signed, sealed and delivered from the get-go,” the juror said. “We had to go through each instruction individually and we did so very carefully, but once we took a first vote, everybody pretty much agreed. It was all pretty clear out of the gate.”
The juror agreed Farlow was somewhat successful in arguing self-defense, but in the end the lasting video images made the difference.
“The big issue was whether or not it was self-defense,” the juror said. “Both of them were guilty of something, but one guy ended up dead and one guy ended up on trial.”
The juror said Nottingham did not necessarily help his case when he took the stand.
“The credibility of the defendant was challenged right out of the gate,” the juror said. “That’s what pretty much damned him in the end. He really didn’t come across as a sympathetic character who had lost a good friend. He hit him and knocked him down and that’s what ultimately caused his death.”