Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson says her actions following Ahmaud Arbery’s Feb. 23 shooting death were meant to help authorities get at the truth. She recused herself, as one of the men involved once worked for her office, and has remained “intentionally ignorant about the facts and law of this case” ever since.
“The one mistake I made in this case was trying to be helpful to the police,” she said during an interview this week with WIFO-FM in Jesup. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said Tuesday he has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into how Johnson and Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, who also recused himself, handled the case.
“I welcome this investigation,” said Johnson, a regular on the Jesup radio morning show. She has declined requests for interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and said during the radio interview she didn’t see the point in engaging with media outside her community.
“Based on what’s being put out there on television, I don’t know that it makes a lot of sense for me to join in and try to fight fake news. The news media in Atlanta, in Washington and New York, they’re looking for a sensational story that gets headlines and can carry the news cycle and get ratings,” she said. “This has been devastating on Glynn County, on the people in that the neighborhood, on the family down there. A lot of outside forces have come in and Glynn County has been the subject of it and it’s not people that care about getting it right.”
Barnhill issued this statement in response to a request for comment:
“The McMichael/ Arbery Case is an pending ongoing Criminal Case in the State of Georgia. As such, it is not subject to open records requests or release of any information. Further as a member of the State Bar of Georgia I am not allowed by State Law and State Bar rules to have any public comment on the facts, or on the law, or on the news stories about the case, to ensure a fair and just trial for all parties. Let the courts and the criminal justice work.”
The GBI last week arrested Travis McMichael, 34, and his father, Gregory McMichael, 64, after reviewing evidence including a 36-second video of the Feb. 23 incident. Both men were charged with felony homicide and aggravated assault and have been denied bond. Gregory McMichael retired a year ago from Johnson's office, prompting her to step aside and contact Barnhill, she said. Their circuits regularly handle cases for one another when conflicts arise, she said.
“I was concerned about the conflict my office had,” she said. “I really didn’t feel like it was a good idea, knowing what the gravity of the situation was, for us to just tell the police, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ In retrospect, I was trying to do a good deed and get them some help and guidance to help them do their job. It’s now being used against me.”
Glynn County commissioners Peter Murphy and Allen Booker have said Johnson's office told police not to make any arrests immediately after the shooting, which she disputed in a statement last week and again during the radio interview.
“That’s so far from the truth. It’s just a straight-up lie,” she said. “I’m devastated by this. Twenty years of working in the criminal justice system and upholding the law and try(ing) to do things right. And then you have two people say this and it just catches national media as if it’s the truth.”
She suggested a motive for the allegations.
“Really, for probably over the last couple of years, we’ve had some corruption issues in the Glynn County Police Department,” she said. “My office has been at the forefront of trying to deal with some of those and at the same time walk the line where we still have to help the police, because that’s our job, and take their cases.”
John Powell, who was chief at the time of Arbery's shooting, was indicted a few days after the incident and is on administrative leave with pay. Powell and three former police officials were charged with a variety of crimes related to a scandal involving the department's narcotics squad.
“I think it’s retaliation for me being the whistleblower on their police department,” Johnson said of claims she thwarted arrests in the Arbery case. The matter has drawn national attention and prominent voices.
“Today would’ve been Ahmaud Arbery’s 26th birthday,” Oprah Winfrey said in a recent social media post. “I spoke with his mom Wanda yesterday who says she feels better now that the two men have finally been arrested. But they were only arrested because WE saw the video.”
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Today would’ve been Ahmaud Arbery’s 26th birthday. But he’s not here to celebrate because he was senselessly shot and killed doing something to make his life healthier and stronger. He went out for a jog while being Black. I wonder what was he thinking in those last seconds of his life? Unimaginable to go for a run in 2020 and end up dead because of the color of your skin. I spoke with his mom Wanda yesterday who says she feels better now that the two men have finally been arrested. But they were only arrested because WE saw the video. Today people everywhere walked 2.23 miles in the name of Ahmaud and justice. We did 2.26 in honor of his 26th birthday 🙏🏽 #IRunWithMaud
A 2015 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found Johnson assisted Glynn police officers in their defense against possible prosecution for the death of Caroline Small, killed in what the GBI's lead agent on the case called the worst police shooting he'd ever investigated.
The officers were cleared of the shooting after Glynn police officials interfered with the GBI probe. In 2018, Cory Sasser, one of the officers involved in the shooting, made good on a threat and killed his estranged wife and her male friend before taking his own life. Days before the murder he was involved in a standoff with SWAT team members.
Despite the threat and the standoff, during which Sasser assaulted two officers, Johnson arranged for his release on $5,000 bond.
None of that came up during this week’s radio interview.
Johnson said she saw the cellphone video capturing the last moments of Arbery’s life only after it started circulating last week. She said she didn’t know when Barnhill, appointed to the case after her recusal, reviewed it or other evidence.
“I don’t know what his process was,” she said. “I don’t know what he saw and what he discussed with the police because I wasn’t a party to any of that.”
Barnhill also stepped aside, as his son works in Johnson’s office, but expressed thoughts on the Arbery case.
In an April 3 letter to Glynn police, Barnhill wrote that Travis and Greg McMichael were legally carrying their shotgun and .357 magnum revolver under Georgia’s open carry law and were entitled to pursue and detain Arbery under the state’s provision that allows for citizen’s arrest. The McMichaels told investigators after the incident that they suspected Arbery of burglaries and that he became violent when confronted.
In his letter, Barnhill said he believed Arbery had “mental health issues,” without providing any supporting medical evidence, and noted Arbery’s record. The 25-year-old was convicted of shoplifting and of violating probation in 2018; five years earlier, he was indicted on charges that he took a handgun to a high school basketball game, records show.
A national association of district attorneys condemned Barnhill’s actions, saying, “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.”
Attorney General Carr on Tuesday also expressed concerns.
“When a district attorney is unable to take on a case due to a conflict, our office must appoint another prosecutor to handle the case,” Carr said, adding that he had asked the GBI to look more deeply into the case. “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. As a result, we have requested the GBI to review in order to determine whether the process was undermined in any way.”
Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution