A former Georgia prosecutor was indicted on misconduct charges alleging she used her position to shield the men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery from being charged with crimes immediately after the shootings.
A grand jury in coastal Glynn County indicted former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson Thursday on charges of violating her oath of office and hindering a law enforcement officer.
The indictment resulted from an investigation Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr requested last year into local prosecutors’ handling of Arbery’s slaying after a cellphone video of the shooting and a delay in charges sparked a national outcry.
“While an indictment was returned today, our file is not closed, and we will continue to investigate in order to pursue justice,” Carr, a Republican, said in a statement.
Arbery was killed February 23, 2020, after a white father and son, Greg and Travis McMichael, armed themselves and pursued the 25-year-old Black man in a pick-up truck after spotting him running in their neighbourhood outside the coastal city of Brunswick, about 112km (70 miles) south of Savannah.
A neighbour, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery at close range with a shotgun. The McMichaels said they believed Arbery was a burglar and that he was shot after attacking Travis McMichael.
Police did not charge any of them immediately following the shooting, and the McMichaels and Bryan remained free for more than two months until the cellphone video of the shooting was leaked online, and Governor Brian Kemp asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to take over the case.
Both McMichaels and Bryan were charged with murder and other crimes in May 2020 and face trial later this year. Prosecutors say Arbery was merely jogging in their neighbourhood and was unarmed when Travis McMichael shot him. They say there is no evidence Arbery had committed a crime.
Greg McMichael had worked as an investigator in Johnson’s office, having retired in 2019. Evidence introduced in pretrial hearings in the murder case shows he called Johnson’s cellphone and left her a voice message soon after the shooting occurred.
“Jackie, this is Greg,” he said, according to a recording of the call included in the public case file. “Could you call me as soon as you possibly can? My son and I have been involved in a shooting and I need some advice right away.”
A record of Greg McMichael’s cellphone calls that day does not show that Johnson called him back.
The indictment says Johnson showed “favor and affection” towards Greg McMichael in the investigation and interfered with police officers at the scene by “directing that Travis McMichael should not be placed under arrest”.
Johnson did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Thursday afternoon. She has previously insisted she did nothing wrong, saying she immediately recused herself from the case because Greg McMichael was a former employee.
“I’m confident that when the truth finally comes out on that, people will understand our office did what it had to under the circumstances,” Johnson told The Associated Press news agency in November after she lost reelection.
Lee Merritt, a lawyer for Arbery’s mother, said in a statement Thursday that prosecutors “must be held accountable when they interfere with investigations in order to protect friends and law enforcement”.
He said Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, “is grateful for everyone who continues to advocate for justice for Ahmaud and for accountability at every level”.
In his call for an investigation into prosecutorial misconduct, Carr asked the GBI not only to investigate Johnson’s actions related to the killing but also those of Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill. No charges have been announced against Barnhill.
After the shooting, Johnson called Barnhill to handle questions from police about how to handle the shooting.
Carr ended up appointing Barnhill to take over on February 27, four days after the shooting. In his letter ordering an investigation last May, Carr said he was never told that Barnhill had already advised police “that he did not see grounds for the arrest of any of the individuals involved in Mr. Arbery’s death”.
Barnhill later recused himself as well, after Arbery’s family learned his son worked for Johnson as an assistant prosecutor. But before he stepped aside, Barnhill wrote a letter to a Glynn County police captain saying the McMichaels “were following, in ‘hot pursuit,’ a burglary suspect, with solid first hand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/ telling him to stop”.
“It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia Law this is perfectly legal,” Barnhill advised in the letter, referencing Georgia’s citizen arrest statute. That law was quickly repealed, with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats, as a reaction to Arbery’s death.
Johnson blamed the controversy over Arbery’s death for her election defeat last year after ten years as top prosecutor for the five-county circuit in southeast Georgia. She was defeated by independent candidate Keith Higgins, who had to collect thousands of signatures to get on the ballot.