Romano: This is the case that changed the way a sheriff looked at stand your ground

Courtesy of Georgia Michielson Georgia and Bruce Michielson, shown in 2015, had a rocky marriage.
Courtesy of Georgia Michielson Georgia and Bruce Michielson, shown in 2015, had a rocky marriage.
Published Aug. 4, 2018

The backstory of Markeis McGlockton and Michael Drejka began months before their tragic encounter. Months before the video from a Clearwater convenience store went viral.

And months before gubernatorial candidates and civil rights activists marched into town, looking for nearby crowds and cameras.

The story begins with the delivery of legal documents at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office involving another stand your ground case from 2017.

Except in that case, an arrest was actually made.

And now the Sheriff's Office is facing a lawsuit.

• • •

The two cases share little in common, other than a controversial Florida statute.

One late night in July 2017, Georgia Michielson says she was trying to barricade herself in the bedroom of her Seminole apartment because she was in fear of her husband, Bruce, who was drunk and had a lengthy history of abuse with her and other women.

With Bruce trying to push his way in from the other side, Georgia reached blindly around the door and stabbed him once in the chest with a knife.

Bruce died, and Georgia was hospitalized with a stroke. Several days later, as she was being discharged from the hospital, she was arrested on a charge of second-degree murder.

For five months, Georgia sat in a Pinellas County Jail while the State Attorney's Office reviewed evidence and previous domestic violence claims.

Finally, in early December, prosecutors came to the conclusion that they could not disprove a stand your ground claim, and Georgia was released.

A lawsuit for false arrest was quickly in the works.

This was all on the heels of a new law that shifted the burden for stand your ground claims to police and prosecutors, basically making them prove a person was not in grave fear.

And it is exactly what Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was talking about when he said Drejka would not be arrested until, or unless, the State Attorney's Office weighed in.

"Was the Michielson lawsuit a leading factor in my decision? No. I didn't say, 'Oh my God, I'm not going to arrest Drejka because I'm already being sued,' '' Gualtieri said. "But it certainly weighs on me. Just the way the law is written, and these heightened standards for stand your ground.

"So, yeah, the Michielson case was fresh in my mind. No matter what the circumstances, you always want to come to the right decision, but you do start feeling like you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.''

• • •

For those inclined to condemn stand your ground — and I have been in that camp — legislators could point to Georgia Michielson, 53, as Exhibit A.

The law was originally pitched as a safeguard for people who endured lengthy and costly court cases merely for defending themselves in a confrontation. Ironically, the Pensacola case legislators cited when the law originally passed in 2005 did not even involve an arrest.

For Michielson, however, you cannot deny the impact on her life.

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While she sat in jail with no income, she was evicted from her apartment, lost her car and all of her belongings. By the time she was released, she was penniless, homeless and the only clothes the jail could offer were her hospital gown and someone else's way-too-big shorts.

So she grabbed her belt loops and pride and walked next door to the Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter. Since then, life has been a continuous cycle of crashing with friends, including her current stop in Jacksonville.

At the time of the arrest, the Sheriff's Office cited conflicting statements about the incident. The problem is the conflicts seemed to be more about her emotions than the facts of the case.

Michielson expressed regret to deputies about stabbing her husband, and still does today. But that regret, she said, does not mean she was not in fear for her life.

"I was the one who called the police, I was the one doing mouth-to-mouth until they got there,'' Michielson said. "I know a lot of people think I'm a fool, but I loved him. I still love him today. He was a good man, but his demons came out when he would binge drink. That person wasn't my husband.''

So, was it a mistake for the Sheriff's Office to arrest her?

Probably, in hindsight. Michielson's attorney, Tom Wadley, tracked down a memo from the State Attorney's Office that says prosecutors initially told police not to arrest her.

Even so, the circumstances were somewhat fuzzy. Michielson's only apparent injuries were to her knees when her husband pushed her down earlier in the evening. He was unarmed, and she acknowledged she stabbed him from behind a door.

But the way the law is now written, it is up to the state to prove that a person was not in fear.

"Based on the circumstances, I cannot see a successful path to proving by clear and convincing evidence that the Defendant did not act in self-defense,'' prosecutor Ben Kanoski wrote in the memo recommending no charges be filed.

Where defendants once had to prove they were eligible for stand your ground by a preponderance of evidence, the Legislature has now flipped the burden, forcing police and prosecutors to prove a defendant is not entitled to stand your ground by the higher "clear and convincing'' standard.

That, Gualtieri said, is why he chose not to arrest Drejka.

Because the entire exchange happened within a matter of seconds, he said it is difficult to prove that Drejka was not reasonably in fear for his life when he fired the gun.

And it's a lesson he learned in the Michielson case.

"I can see why police are extremely leery now to make an arrest when the potential for stand your ground exists,'' said Wadley. "There's almost a built-in false arrest case.''