On a recent summer morning, a probation officer ambled into the First Session of Woburn District Court and spotted a man seated by himself, dressed in a dark suit, his pant leg covering a GPS ankle bracelet. The officer walked over and asked, “You waitin’ for the big guy — Bobby?”
The big guy: That would be Robert A. George. And, yes, the man in the ankle bracelet was indeed waiting for “Bobby,” the high-octane, quick-on-his feet criminal defense attorney who used to dominate courtrooms across the state, only to crash in ignominy. Once named Lawyer of the Year by Lawyer’s Weekly, George was convicted in 2012 of money laundering, banished from the legal bar, and served 33 months in prison.
But now, George is back in court, his law license reinstated, and on this summer day was arguing forcefully to a judge that the ankle bracelet should come off so his client, charged with domestic assault, could work while the case is pending. It was an under-the-radar, ho-hum appearance in the legal scheme of things, but for George it marked the next step in the dramatic fall and rise of one of the region’s best known lawyers, a second chance story in a legal system that offers very few.
“It’s like oxygen for me,’’ George said shortly afterward, still buzzing from being in court again.
George was the local boy gone big. He grew up in West Roxbury, his mother a nurse, his father an Eastern Orthodox priest. He graduated from Boston Latin School, then Northeastern University, and earned a degree from Suffolk University Law School in 1980. He soon fell head over heels for the drama and high stakes of defending the accused — trial work that involves “real life, flesh and blood outcomes.”
“When you’re standing with someone in the well of the courtroom trying to keep the system from snatching them, the way I looked at it, what could be better than that?” he said in an interview with the Globe. “From the start it just seemed to be the most important calling you could have, defending people from the system crushing them.”
George became known for a slew of high-profile criminal cases, equally adept appearing before juries and television cameras. He defended one of the six men accused in the 1983 Big Dan’s sexual assault case, named after the New Bedford bar where a woman was gang-raped. The trial drew national interest and later became the basis for the movie “The Accused,” starring Jodie Foster.
Later, he defended one of the two Roxbury men charged in 1988 with killing Tiffany Moore, the youngest victim of street gang violence at the time. He represented William “Willie” Bennett, whom police labeled the prime suspect in the 1989 Boston murder of a pregnant Carol Stuart — until Stuart’s husband, Charles, was revealed as the killer. And in another case that later inspired books and a film, George defended Christopher M. McCowen, convicted in 2005 of fatally stabbing former New York fashion writer Christa Worthington in Truro. Throughout, George provided legal commentary on national news outlets and shows — CNN, NBC’s “Today” show, “Larry King Live,” to name a few.
It all came undone in 2011 when federal agents showed up at his door to arrest him. As part of a two-year sting operation, federal authorities had a paid informant — and former George client — seek George’s help in laundering $200,000 in crime profits. George referred the informant to a mortgage broker who took the cash and wrote checks for it. The broker kept $40,000 as a fee and later gave George half of it.
George was quickly ushered into federal court, this time as a defendant. It happened so fast he did not have an attorney.
Rosemary C. Scapicchio, a criminal defense attorney and friend, dropped everything and raced to represent him at his initial appearance, a response that signaled the kind of support George would receive from many corners of the legal system. “He’s a great lawyer, and he was in trouble,’’ Scapicchio recalled, “so you go to help.”
What were you thinking? That’s the question everyone asked, including US District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, who put it directly to George at his sentencing.
George had all the laurels that come with an accomplished legal career. He had a devoted family and the widespread support of the legal community.
Yet, he “so disgracefully and inexplicably fell off the straight and narrow path,” the judge noted, before sentencing George to 42 months in prison.
At the Schuylkill federal prison camp in Pennsylvania, George had plenty of time to mull the judge’s question.
“I lost my way,” he’d conclude, citing a frenetic workload and lifestyle that got out of hand and set the stage for a misstep that “irreparably damaged my family and disappointed my friends.”
Disgraced and incarcerated, George put his head down.
“There’s an expression about prison — you don’t do the time with your mind, you do it with your body,” George said. To make it, “you have to develop a routine.”
George tried to check off every box in his “strategy of survival.” For work, he managed the prison’s motor pool, a warehouse, and its power plant. He taught various courses for inmates. He spent hours pecking on a typewriter crafting crime novels, drawing loosely on his own caseload for plot, characters, and mystery.
Always an avid reader, he estimates he read well over 100 books, mostly legal thrillers but also some classics. “I decided I was going to try to conquer “Moby-Dick,” but I just couldn’t finish it.” Family and friends visited on weekends. “I had the kind of emotional support that a lot of other inmates did not have.”
Even as he busied himself, he couldn’t help but be visited by vivid memories of his trial work — a particular closing argument, for example.
Or a crucial moment from one of his big-time criminal cases when he was “cross-examining a witness that you have on the ropes because you know he’s not telling the truth.”
The sense of loss was painful. “I’d remember the sights, the sounds, and the smells of those courtrooms,” he said. “It’s part of your system, you know, and I’m talking about right down to the gouges you find on those old courtroom tables left by criminal defendants.”
George left prison in 2015, settled on Cape Cod, worked as a business manager at a car dealership, and volunteered at food pantries and the local library. Despite disbarment, the light that was his law practice never expired.
He kept up on the legal rulings, took and passed the ethics portion of the bar exam in 2017, and successfully petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court in 2019 to work as a paralegal for two prominent attorneys, Paul V. Kelly and R. Bradford Bailey, both former federal prosecutors.
Under state rules, a disbarred lawyer cannot seek reinstatement for eight years after disbarment; for George that meant 2020, and he did not hesitate.
“Practicing law gave my life meaning,’’ he wrote in his 18-page petition on May 19, 2020 to the SJC’s Board of Bar Overseers, or BBO. “Losing it has hollowed out part of my soul.”
Attorney Erin K. Higgins, a former BBO member, said felons achieving reinstatement are rare. “The presumption is that the petitioner lacks moral character,” said Higgins, now managing partner at Conn Kavanaugh. “And so it’s a heavy burden of proof on the attorney seeking readmission.”
George teamed up with attorney Thomas F. Maffei of Sherin and Lodgen, known for his expertise in legal ethics and bar disciplinary cases. Maffei made clear that George’s quest to return to the fold was “an uphill battle.”
In fact, if not for a key ruling by the SJC a half-century ago George’s bid would likely have been impossible. The case was an infamous one, involving Alger Hiss, who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury and disbarred, but his license to practice was restored by the SJC in a unanimous 1975 decision. The court ruled that a criminal conviction was not an insurmountable impediment, and it articulated a three-prong test to use in assessing a petitioner’s suitability: that the person demonstrate moral fitness; that he has kept up with legal trends and legal expertise; and that readmission would not be detrimental to the bar, the public interest, or the administration of justice.
What made the outcome so remarkable was that Hiss never accepted his guilty verdict; he always maintained his innocence and was outspoken in claiming he’d been wronged.
George was different. He owned the outcome. “I deserved to be punished severely for my conduct, including my imprisonment.” he told the BBO in his petition.
He and Maffei prepped as if getting ready for one of George’s high-profile criminal trials. Maffei submitted some 60 exhibits and legal filings on George’s behalf, along with 33 letters from lawyers, judges, court personnel, and inmates George had done time with. The hearing lasted four days. Scapicchio testified, as did retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. Gertner called George “an extraordinary advocate” and testified that when she was on the bench, “I remember him to be among the best in terms of the energy and the commitment and the work product.”
The only opposing witness was the father of a former client who complained that George had failed to cooperate with the client’s family’s appellate attorneys. Notably, the US Attorney’s office, the very office which had successfully prosecuted George, had the option to oppose George’s bid but did not. When it was over, the panel voted unanimously that George’s law license be restored, and a year ago the SJC made his comeback official.
Today, George, 67, has settled into a new routine, a new strategy for survival. He has no plans to resume the hectic, workaholic pace of yesteryear. He’s been selective in building his caseload. He’s got two rape cases in Barnstable, a union corruption case in Boston, a corruption case in Rhode Island, among others.
Meanwhile, he and Maffei continue to pursue his reinstatement to the federal courts, appealing a single judge’s recent rebuff of his bid.
Most recently, George became “of counsel” to a Cape-Cod law firm. “We’re thrilled to have him on board — as a trial lawyer, he’s a legend,” said the firm’s namesake, Bruce A. Bierhans. Why risk his firm’s reputation by taking on an ex-con? “I believe in second chances,” Bierhans said.
In Woburn District Court earlier in the summer, George worked hard to do just that for his client in the domestic assault case. In arguing for the removal of the client’s GPS ankle bracelet George brought firsthand experience to bear; following prison he had to wear one for 90 days — a heavy, plastic shackle, he said, that resembled an oversize cellphone. “I understand how very traumatic it can be not to have the freedom of movement you’re used to having.”
In the end, though, George lost; the judge ruled that the GPS ankle bracelet would stay.
George was disappointed but not deterred. With eagerness in his voice he plotted the next move — filing an appeal.
“Nothing’s easy,” he said after the hearing. “Nothing. But the game is not over.”