People held rally to protest the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery on Friday, May 8, 2020, in Brunswick Ga. Two men have been charged with murder in the February shooting. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Photo: John Bazemore
Photo: John Bazemore

Georgia AG asks DOJ to investigate handling of Ahmaud Arbery case

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr on Sunday asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery murder case, focusing in part on discussions between prosecutors from the state’s Brunswick and Waycross judicial districts. 

“We are committed to a complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset,” Carr said. “The family, the community and the state of Georgia deserve answers, and we will work with others in law enforcement at the state and federal level to find those answers.” 

Jackie Johnson, district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, has disputed claims from two Glynn County commissioners who say her office stopped police officers from making arrests on the day Arbery was shot to death. Commissioners Peter Murphy and Allen Booker on Friday said police investigating the Feb. 23 shooting contacted Johnson’s office to say they intended to arrest Greg McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34. 

Carr is alleging the state was kept in the dark by Johnson and Waycross Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill. Last month, Barnhill wrote there was insufficient probable cause to charge the McMichaels with murder. 

Also Sunday, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced it arrested Rashawn Smith, 20, in Midway, Ga., and charged him with dissemination of information relating to terroristic acts. The arrest came after the GBI tweeted it was investigating a threat made on Facebook against “future protests related to Ahmaud Arbery.” 

Meanwhile, a national association of district attorneys is condemning the actions of Barnhill, who eventually removed himself from the Arbery case, and expressed concern that his handling of it could prevent a “just outcome.” 

Arbery’s family said he liked to jog in the Brunswick area where he was shot. One of the armed men who confronted him that day told police they pursued him because they thought he had been involved in earlier neighborhood break-ins. On Thursday, the GBI arrested the McMichaels and charged them each with murder and aggravated assault. 

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — floated as a possible running mate for Joe Biden — on Sunday called the fatal shooting a “lynching of an African American man,” and asserted the McMichaels would not have been charged had video of the killing not been made public. 

“Had we not seen that video, I don’t believe they would be charged,” Bottoms told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “It is heartbreaking. It is 2020. And this was a lynching of an African American man.” 

In discussing the Arbery case on CNN Sunday, Bottoms took aim at the Trump Administration, referring to “rhetoric that we hear coming out of the White House.” 

“In so many ways, I think that many who are prone to being racist are given permission to do it in an overt way that we otherwise would not see in 2020,” she said.“In cities across this country, even if local leadership fails, there was always the backstop of our Justice Department to step in and make sure that people are appropriately prosecuted. But we don’t have that leadership at the top right now. It is disheartening.” 

“I have four kids, three of whom are African American boys… They are angry and they are afraid. And I think it speaks to the need to have leadership at the top that cares for all of our communities and not just in words but in deeds as well.” 

Speaking on Fox & Friends Friday, President Donald Trump called the video of the fatal shooting “very disturbing.” 

“I looked at a picture of that young man,” Trump said. “He was in a tuxedo… I will say that that looks like a really good young guy. It’s a very disturbing situation, to me. My heart goes out to the parents, and the family, and the friends.” 

U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina has mentioned Bottoms as a potential vice presidential running mate for Biden, telling the Financial Times this year: “There is a young lady right there in Georgia who I think would make a tremendous VP candidate, and that’s the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms.” 

Bottoms told CNN Sunday she was honored by Clyburn’s comments, adding “being mayor of Atlanta right now is a more than a full-time job, continuing to lead our city but also in the midst of COVID-19.” 

In a related development over the weekend, the National District Attorneys Association took particular issue with Barnhill’s issuing a detailed letter exonerating the McMichaels on April 3 after he had concluded that he had a conflict of interest in the case. 

The association, which has 5,500 members and represents more than two-thirds of state and local prosecutors’ offices, said that letter could influence jurors and make another prosecutor’s job more difficult. 

“No prosecutor should inject his or her opinion into a pending case to the point where she or he becomes a potential witness and risks compromising the just outcome of a case,” the association said. 

Barnhill could not be reached for comment Sunday. 

Johnson brought Barnhill into the case the day of the shooting, records show. Her office already had decided to recuse itself because Gregory McMichael had worked as an investigator at the department 20 years before his retirement last year. 

Johnson has not explained why she picked Barnhill, who was elected in 2014 after a long career as a Waycross Judicial Circuit prosecutor. After reviewing the evidence — including the now infamous 36-second video that shows the McMichaels confronting and shooting Arbery — Barnhill told Glynn police the morning after the shooting that he believed the men were justified in their decision to pursue Arbery. He also said they shot him in self-defense. 

Four days later, Carr officially named Barnhill prosecutor. After Arbery’s family complained Barnhill had a conflict because his son works as an assistant district attorney in Johnson’s office, the prosecutor officially recused himself on April 7. He had acknowledged his conflict of interest by April 2. 

“At that point, his involvement in the case should have ceased,” the association said. “Instead District Attorney Barnhill wrote a letter, which has now become public, in which he offered a gratuitous and detailed opinion regarding the hurdles to any prosecution of the individuals involved in the shooting of Mr. Arbery.” 

Carr last week said Barnhill should never have accepted the case under the circumstances. On April 13, Carr appointed Tom Durden, the Liberty County district attorney, to prosecute the case. Durden has said he intends to seek indictments from a Glynn County grand jury. 

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

X