Pinellas sheriff facing false arrest lawsuit in stand your ground case

In a recently filed complaint, Mary Georgia Michielson said deputies falsely arrested her after she stabbed her husband during an argument in July 2017.
Georgia and Bruce Michielson, shown here in Fort Myers in 2015, had a rocky four-year marriage. She said she feared for her life when she fatally stabbed him as he tried to force his way into their bedroom. [Courtesy of Georgia Michielson]
Georgia and Bruce Michielson, shown here in Fort Myers in 2015, had a rocky four-year marriage. She said she feared for her life when she fatally stabbed him as he tried to force his way into their bedroom. [Courtesy of Georgia Michielson]
Published November 27 2018
Updated November 27 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — A woman who spent five months behind bars before charges against her were dropped in the death of her husband has sued Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Mary Georgia Michielson, 53, said deputies arrested her even though she said she acted in self defense when she stabbed her husband Bruce to death in July 2017.

A prosecutor, citing the state’s stand your ground law, later concluded that the state couldn’t disprove Michielson’s contention and charges against her were dropped in December. Meantime, Michielson said, she lost her apartment, car and possessions, and has been forced to stay with friends. Doctors said she experienced a stroke and seizures after the attack, Michielson said, and she has been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder — from the stabbing, years living as a victim of domestic violence and the way she was treated by the Sheriff’s Office.

Still, she told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, she loved her husband despite his flaws and saw in him more than his worst moments.

“Not only did I lose everything,” but “I couldn’t mourn my husband. I didn’t get any in-patient rehabilitation (for the stroke). I didn’t get any counseling ... So I’m basically just trying to do my best.”

Deputies had no business bringing charges against her in the first place, according to the Nov. 15 lawsuit.

The day of her arrest, a prosecutor told a Pinellas detective that the move “would be detrimental to the investigation as more time would be needed” to research the case, according to a memo from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office provided by Michielson’s attorney, Tom Wadley.

"Had they done what this prosecutor recommended that they do, none of this would have happened," Wadley said.

The prosecutor, Ben Kanoski, was referring to the standard for evaluating claims under Florida’s stand your ground law. The law eliminated an individual’s duty to retreat before resorting to deadly force in a threatening encounter.

In its original form, the law required defendants to show they were acting in self defense when they used deadly force. A change made by the state Legislature shifted the burden to prosecutors, requiring that they prove self defense was was not a factor by “clear and convincing evidence.”

Sheriff Gualtieri said in an interview that he stands by his detectives’ decision to arrest Michielson.

Gualtieri said his investigators denied that prosecutors recommended against arresting her but said he must continue researching the claim before deciding how to move forward.

“There are certainly things that are laid out in the State Attorney’s file that need to be fleshed out,” he told the Times last week.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Deputies: Seminole woman stabbed husband during argument

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Information from the Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney’s provides this timeline:

On the night of the killing, Bruce Michielson had been drinking and he argued with his wife, who goes by the name Georgia. She told him to sleep on the couch and locked herself in the bedroom.

She snuck out at one point to use the bathroom and ran into him in the hallway. He pushed her, then went into the bathroom. She spotted a knife stabbed into a pillow where he had been sleeping then grabbed the knife and several others and brought them with her into the bedroom.

Bruce Michielson tried to enter the bedroom and his wife pushed against the door, telling him she had a knife.

He managed to prop the door open and slip his foot inside. Georgia Michielson swung a knife around the door and stabbed him in the chest.

Bruce Michielson was pronounced dead at a hospital. Georgia Michielson was also hospitalized.

The Sheriff’s Office said Michielson gave inconsistent accounts of what happened.

Her “statements and the physical evidence did not support the justifiable use of deadly force,” according to an arrest report. Detectives arrested her upon her release from the hospital.

Kanoski, the assistant state attorney, came to a different conclusion.

“The defense will point to the fact that the physical evidence is entirely consistent with the defendant’s version of events,” he wrote in a November 2017 memo. “Frankly, it is.”

The Michielson case played out under the radar until another stand your ground case that emerged over the summer took a sharply different path.

On July 19, Michael Drejka shot and killed Markeis McGlockton in a convenience store parking lot near Clearwater. McGlockton had shoved Drejka to the ground during an argument over a parking space, putting Drejka in fear of further attack, he told detectives.

ORIGINAL STORY: No arrest in fatal shooting during argument over handicap parking space

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That case, too, was handled by Gualtieri’s office. But the sheriff declined to arrest Drejka, saying he was precluded from doing so by stand your ground and referred the case to the State Attorney’s Office for further consideration.

By then, Gualtieri had received notice that Michielson intended to sue. He told the Times in August that the Michielson case, and the new burden of proof in the law, weighed on him.

The sheriff faced criticism from McGlockton’s family, lawmakers and civil rights activists. Prosecutors had Drejka arrested about three weeks later on a manslaughter charge.

“There is irony in this,” the sheriff said last week, speaking of the two cases.

He echoed a sentiment he expressed soon after the McGlockton shooting: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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