After police chief indicted, Brunswick DA recuses herself from case

The Brunswick district attorney who is facing a state and federal investigation for her actions in the Ahmaud Arbery case has removed herself from another high-profile criminal case in Glynn County.

District Attorney Jackie Johnson notified Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr on May 21 that she was recusing herself from the case against Glynn County Police Chief John Powell and three former Glynn officers. The officers were indicted Feb. 27 on a raft of charges stemming from a 2019 scandal involving the department's narcotics suppression unit.

Powell, who was placed on paid administrative leave following the grand jury indictment, did not comment on Thursday. His attorney, Mitch Shook said the charges were politically motivated stemming from animus DA Johnson’s office had for Powell and the agency he leads.

Shook is also representing one of the other officers, Brian Scott, who left the department last year to become police chief in Vidalia. Shook filed a motion on Wednesday to quash the grand jury indictment, claiming that Johnson's conflict of interest was there before the grand jury met on Feb. 27 and, thus, the actions her office took to secure the indictments should be invalidated.

“At this point in time it seems pretty clear to me the indictments have to be quashed,” Shook said. “She has a conflict. Anything that happened is tainted.”

The other two officers, David M. Haney and David Hassler, have retired. Haney is represented by Atlanta attorney Don Samuel, who filed a separate motion this week to quash the indictment and ask for a hearing on the matter.

Johnson did not respond to a request for an interview. On Wednesday, Carr appointed, Joe Mulholland, the district attorney in Bainbridge in southwest Georgia, to assume prosecution of the case. Mulholland, a veteran DA for the past 16 years, told the AJC he didn’t yet know much about the case.

“Certainly we’ll look at it and do our own independent review and go from there,” he said. “We’ll take a fresh look.”

Johnson's office has been caught up in controversy since a video of Arbery's shooting became public last month, including calls from the public that she be removed. In the Arbery case, Carr asked state and federal investigators to review Johnson's conduct and the man she helped bring into the to case, Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill. Johnson notified Carr she had a conflict after Barnhill had already been actively involved in the case and had made an initial determination that no crime was committed. Carr has been critical of their actions, which violated state guidelines for recusals.

Shook said Johnson has had it out for the police chief for nearly two years, following the controversy of Officer Cory Sasser killing his wife and her male friend in June 2018. There was a lot of finger pointing in the Glynn County law enforcement community following those killings and that frayed the relationship between the DA's office and the county police.

Johnson had brought in a special prosecutor, former Clayton DA Tracy Graham Lawson, to handle the case against the chief and the other officers, but her office remained actively involved in the case.

“She should have recused herself from day one and she didn’t,” said Glynn County Commission Chairman Michael Browning. “This whole thing stunk from day one. It stunk because of the falling out she had with the chief of police.”

Powell took the helm at the Glynn County police department in 2017 after longtime Chief Matt Doering retired. The agency he inherited had been besieged by scandal stemming from the police shooting death of Caroline Small, an unarmed mother of two.

Sasser and another officer were involved in that shooting. An AJC investigation into the case in 2015 revealed how Johnson worked closely with the police to help sway the grand jury and clear the officers. Four former prosecutors in her office called her actions prosecutorial misconduct.

Johnson now says the criticism from county commissioners over her handling of the Arbery investigation is rooted in her effort to root out corruption in the police agency. She went on a local radio program last month to defend her actions. She called what is being said about her lies.

“I think it’s retaliation for me being the whistleblower on their police department,” she said.