by Kathryn G. Menu
A day after Christmas in 1988, George McGuire was hauled from his Brooklyn apartment by police as his girlfriend and newborn son ascended the stairway home. McGuire had been charged and convicted of murder, among other crimes he claimed to be innocent of.
But earlier this month, just over 23 years after his arrest, McGuire stood on the steps of Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York and took his first breath as a free man in more than two decades, standing next to the son he barely got a chance to know.
Also standing with McGuire was Sag Harbor attorney Laura Solinger, who worked on McGuire’s case for a decade and throughout appeal after appeal in both state and federal courts. Late last year, with appeals pending in both courts, Solinger was able to strike a deal with a federal prosecutor to reduce McGuire’s sentence to 20 years to life. Shortly thereafter, McGuire, now a resident of Poughkeepsie, was released on parole and into the arms of a family that waited two decades for him to come home.
“I spent 10 years working on this,” said Solinger in an interview last week. “The wheels of justice turn slowly. But I drove my car up there and when we left, the van they were in was behind me. It was a beautiful day, and I looked at the van and I knew he was in it, and he was going home for the first time since 1988.”
Solinger gives a lot of credit to McGuire, who never lost faith, kept records as if he was an attorney himself, and believed he would eventually be granted freedom from a sentence handed down in a case that Solinger said was tried unfairly with McGuire convicted on purely circumstantial evidence and one flawed witness testimony.
On Christmas Day in 1988 there was a shooting outside of Tiny’s Lounge, a club in Brooklyn. Solinger, who got involved in the case more than a decade after McGuire’s arrest, said the prosecution’s theory was that there was an altercation in the club that spilled outside onto the street.
Shots were fired, and a man named Leslie Lewis was shot nine times, although he and two other bystanders who were shot survived. The club’s DJ, Dexter Simmons, who was later identified as one of the shooter’s best friends and was simply standing in a nearby doorway, was shot once in the back and died.
According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, a lone witness said that McGuire stated, “wet him” in reference to Lewis, which the one witness said meant “kill him” in street talk.
Two men who were later convicted as shooters in the incident — Craig Twiggs and Harold George — fled to Pittsburgh immediately. When police searched for McGuire 14 hours after the shooting, they found him at home with his mother and siblings, waiting for the return of his newborn son and the woman that would eventually become his wife.
Solinger believes that if McGuire had a good trial attorney he would have never been convicted in the case. She argued that after the shooting, police had only one witness testify that McGuire was at the scene, even though there were hundreds available to testify.
She said the one witness, Tanya Kimbrough, a woman who grew up with people involved in the incident, later signed a sworn statement changing her story, but recanted that statement at trial.
McGuire told police he was actually at Kings County Hospital with his newborn son, and took a cab to Tiny’s after leaving them. McGuire said when he approached the club he heard shooting and hid behind a car with three girls he later walked home with.
McGuire was eventually convicted of murder, attempted murder, three counts of assault and three counts of criminal possession of a weapon. He was charged concurrent sentences by the judge equaling 60 years to life.
A gun was never recovered in the case, there was no DNA evidence, no eyewitnesses except for Kimbrough, and the only victim, Lewis, could not identify McGuire as one of his assailants; but still McGuire was convicted. At 20 years old, he faced the possibility he would not be up for parole until he was 80.
In the meantime, the shooters in the case were eventually found and convicted. They received sentences of 15 years to life each, and later would write in sworn affidavits that McGuire was not present at the shooting.
McGuire lost his first appeal with a court appointed attorney. Solinger took the case 12 years after the initial arrest after a phone call from McGuire’s sister.
After several more failed attempts at appeals, the case eventually found itself in front of both state court, for re-sentencing, and federal court for an appeal. Even in dire moments, McGuire refused to give up.
“It was unfathomable to him that at 20 years old he going into jail for the rest of his life for a crime he always maintained he did not commit,” said Solinger, adding that in 23 years McGuire’s story about that fateful Christmas day never changed.
“He told me that when people asked him how long he was in for, he would say, ‘25 to life,’ because he could not say the words, ’60 to life’ because that would have meant he would be an old man before he ever made it in front of a parole board. It was a part of his character and a part of the lesson: don’t give up.”
With both cases alive, Solinger reached out to the federal prosecutor and encouraged him to make a deal.
Eventually, this fall he was offered 20 to life, where he had already served over 22 years. He accepted the change in sentencing, and in December called Solinger to report that the parole board had visited his wife at their home, almost a guarantee he would be released.
McGuire was paroled on December 27 and released two days later into the arms of his son and daughter.
According to Solinger, McGuire’s dealings with law are far from over. A barber by trade, he now wants to be a paralegal.
“He wants us to be a legal team,” said Solinger, noting when considering taking on another murder case out of Brooklyn, her first thought was to have McGuire help her.
“On top of the street smarts he has, George is really proficient at research and he is a great writer,” she said. “I could definitely see working with him in the near future.”