Georgia Attorney General Now Wants Arbery Prosecutors Investigated for Possible Misconduct

The AG's letter to the bureau of investigation says one prosecutor even steered police away from arresting the McMichaels before he was formally appointed to the case.
May 12, 2020, 3:44pm
The AG's letter to the bureau of investigation says one prosecutor even steered police away from arresting the McMichaels before he was formally appointed to the case.

Georgia’s attorney general wants state investigators to probe the conduct of the first two county prosecutors who initially handled the case of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing.

In a letter to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Monday, Blair McGowan, the state’s deputy attorney general, outlined how prosecutors delayed disclosing potential conflicts of interest to the state, and how one prosecutor even steered police away from arrests before he was formally appointed to the case.

“The Attorney General is concerned that the actions of these offices in possible misrepresenting or failing to disclose information during the process of appointing a conflict prosecutor to investigate the death of Ahmaud Arbery may have constituted unprofessional Conduct,” McGowan wrote Monday.

Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was jogging around a suburban neighborhood near Brunswick on Feb. 23 when he was chased and gunned down by two armed white men who took him for a burglar. One of the men, Gregory McMichael, had an extensive career in county law enforcement before retiring last year, and told Glynn County police that he initiated the chase in his truck when he saw Arbery “hauling ass.” The other was his adult son, Travis McMichael, who shot Arbery three times with a shotgun.

The McMichaels were arrested last week and charged with murder and aggravated assault after months of local law enforcement agencies passing the case around while declining to issue arrest warrants. The arrests only happened after the case was referred to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation upon the leak of a graphic video that showed Arbery’s final moments and sparked national outrage. It took the state agency 36 hours to charge the men.

Attorneys for Arbery’s family said the video had been in the possession of local law enforcement for months.

“Unfortunately, many questions and concerns have arisen regarding, among other things, the communications between and actions taken by the District Attorneys of the Brunswick and Waycross Circuits,” Attorney General Carr said in a statement Tuesday. “As a result, we have requested the GBI to review in order to determine whether the process was undermined in any way.”

Because of the elder McMichael’s ties to Glynn County law enforcement, the local prosecutor, Jackie Johnson, recused herself within days of Arbery’s death. The case then went to another prosecutor, George Barnhill, in Waycross, Georgia, who later recused himself as well — but not before making his opinions on the case known to local police.

Barnhill’s son is an assistant district attorney in Johnson’s office, and previously worked on an unrelated case involving Arbery, according to the attorney general’s office. However, Barnhill “held onto the case for several more weeks after making this discovery,” according to Georgia’s attorney general, only informing the state that there was a conflict on April 7 in a letter that oddly referenced the alleged criminal backgrounds of Arbery’s cousin and brother.

Barnhill also provided his opinion on the case to the Glynn County police department on Feb. 24, according to the attorney general, just a day after Arbery’s death and before Johnson formally recused herself from the case. The attorney general’s office said Barnhill’s recommendation to police was “unknown and undisclosed.”

Barnhill strung together the state’s citizen’s arrest law — which he said defended the McMichaels for pursuing Arbery — and its controversial Stand Your Ground law as justification for not arresting the men after an armed chase and subsequent killing. Gregory McMichael told police that Arbery grabbed Travis' gun, so Travis “was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself,” according to a letter Barnhill wrote to local police.

After Barnhill recused himself, the case was taken up by District Attorney Tom Durden in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit. Durden referred the case to a grand jury. However, Georgia’s attorney general referred the case to yet another district attorney — Joyette Holmes of the Cobb County Judicial Circuit — on Monday.

Also on Monday, the federal Justice Department said it would investigate whether hate crime charges were warranted in Arbery’s death, after Carr requested federal involvement in the case. Georgia is one of only four states that does not have its own hate crime law.

Cover: People react during a rally to protest the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, Friday, May 8, 2020, in Brunswick Ga. Two men have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Arbery, a black man in his mid-20s, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)