Conviction of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers puts new focus on first prosecutor
Those demanding justice for Ahmaud Arbery want another conviction beyond the three White men found guilty of murdering the 25-year-old Black jogger running in their south Georgia neighborhood in 2020.
An hour after his son Travis had shot Arbery twice point blank with a shot gun, call records show Gregory McMichael dialed a number on his cell phone and left a voicemail.
“Jackie, this is Greg. Could you call me as soon as you possibly can… My (inaudible) and I have been involved in a shooting and I need some advice right away…” Gregory McMichael said in the voicemail, according to evidence presented in pre-trial hearings in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial.
“Jackie” was Jackie Johnson, the Brunswick District Attorney. Until he retired in 2019, Greg McMichael worked as an investigator in Johnson’s office.
The call lasted just 39 seconds, but Arbery’s family contends it was the reason no one was arrested in the case for 74 days — and almost prevented a trial.
McMichael wasn’t the only person calling his former boss for advice that day. Officers with the Glynn County Police Department investigating the killing also reached out to Johnson’s office seeking advice on what to do.
How Johnson allegedly responded to those calls is behind a two-count indictment accusing her of violating her oath of office and hindering law enforcement.
According to the indictment handed down September 2, Johnson obstructed law enforcement “by directing that Travis McMichael should not be placed under arrest, contrary to the laws of said State.”
The more serious count alleges Johnson violated her oath of office “by showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation into the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery.” The crime is a felony punishable up to five years in prison.
Attempts by CNN to contact Jackie Johnson and her lawyers for comment have gone unanswered.
The indictment contends even as she recused herself from the case because of her connection to Greg McMichael, Johnson steered the investigation to nearby Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill. Then she recommended to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office that Barnhill handle the case, allegedly failing to disclose she had already discussed the case with Barnhill.
It was Barnhill who sent a letter to Glynn County police, giving his legal opinion and describing the chase of Arbery by armed men in pickup trucks as “perfectly legal” under Georgia law.
Barnhill’s conclusion: “We do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties.”
CNN has contacted Barnhill for comment but has not heard back.
Supporters of Arbery’s family believe that could have ended the investigation, were it not for the role another cell phone played that day.
William Bryan Jr., also among the men found guilty last week, used his phone to record the pursuit and killing of Arbery. The video was made public May 5, 2020. In the resulting national outrage, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp had the Georgia Bureau of Investigation take over the case. Less than two days later Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested.
The GBI also investigated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and their findings formed the foundation of the Johnson indictment.
Johnson turned herself in to the Glynn County Jail September 8. She was free in less than an hour without having to pay any bond.
In early September, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, applauded Johnson’s indictment.
“She didn’t pull the trigger, but she is just as much to hold accountable as the three guys who actually did this to Ahmaud,” she said.
Johnson has denied any wrong doing, instead telling her constituents during her re-election campaign she was being falsely accused.
“That case is a terrible tragedy for the community,” Johnson said in October 2020 during an online debate between Johnson and other candidates running to be Brunswick district attorney. “It is a tragedy for the family. I’m sorry how things happened. I’m sorry that a lie got started and I could not turn it back.”
After serving a decade as the Brunswick district attorney, Johnson was voted out of office.
Under Georgia law an elected district attorney is accountable to no one except voters. If there is a trial and no change of venue, then Jackie Johnson’s jury will be selected from that same pool of voters, in the same county, that convicted Gregory, McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Bryan Jr.
The Georgia Attorney General says the investigation is ongoing.
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