Controversial South Georgia prosecutor loses re-election bid

Three days after Glynn County police shot a 35-year-old mother of two, Jackie Johnson kicked off her first campaign for district attorney in the Brunswick Judicial District.

Johnson, who won that 2010 special election and was twice re-elected, would play a key role in shielding the two officers who shot Caroline Small from criminal charges despite objections from several prosecutors in her office. She fired one assistant district attorney, Keith Higgins, due to his outspoken determination to prosecute the officers.

On Tuesday, Higgins, running as an independent, exacted some unexpected political revenge, defeating Johnson despite no party backing. The Small case dogged Johnson throughout her tenure and ultimately played a role in her defeat.

“It showed people how she was going to conduct herself in office,” said Bob Apgar, who led the Justice for Caroline group, which shined a spotlight on the case long after Small’s death.

Members of the group were “overjoyed” when they learned of Johnson’s defeat, he said.

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.

It was a stunning outcome, especially when you consider the stark partisanship that defines politics in 2020, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles S. Bullock III.

“Most voters think of themselves as Democrats or Republicans and what we see right now is the lines have become so rigid,” Bullock said.

But it was another controversy which hastened Johnson’s defeat, Bullock said. Though she recused herself from the investigation into the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, Johnson faces accusations she used her position to protect one of her former investigators, Gregory McMichael, involved in the incident.

McMichael, his son, Travis McMichael and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were charged with murder after the GBI took over the investigation. Johnson, meanwhile, is the subject of a federal probe into her handling of the case.

“If he didn’t have that crisis in the the DA’s office I don’t think (Higgins) could’ve pulled it off,” Bullock said.

For many voters, Johnson’s role in the Arbery case was the final straw.

“I wanted Johnson gone, bottom line,” said St. Simons Island resident Vince Jarocki, 38.

Jarocki, who works in retail, pointed to other cases he believes were badly mishandled by Johnson.

Glynn County Lt. Robert “Cory” Sasser, who was one of the officers who shot Small, was arrested twice in 2018, for domestic violence case engaging in an armed standoff with his fellow officers.

Johnson’s chief assistant John B. Johnson III (no relation) didn’t allow an officer who’d been assaulted by Sasser to testify at a bond hearing that Sasser posed a danger to his estranged wife and others. Sasser was released on bond. A month later he murdered his wife, Katie, and her friend, John Hall Jr., before committing suicide.

Most recently, Johnson faced criticism for pushing to keep Dennis Perry in prison despite evidence he was innocent in a double murder at a Camden County church. Johnson fought Perry’s efforts to win his freedom after 20 years behind bars even though DNA linked another man to the crime scene. A judge overturned Perry’s conviction and allowed his release in July.

“(She) has a storied history of misconduct, misappropriation and abject failure,” said Elijah Bobby Henderson, 45, a minister and U.S. Navy veteran. The Arbery case struck close to home for Henderson, whose son used to work at McDonald’s with Arbery.

Henderson said he is optimistic Higgins will set the Brunswick district attorney’s office on a different path.

“It has been a long campaign,” Higgins, 61, told The AJC on Wednesday. “We started it back in August of last year. It took a lot of people working very hard to get enough signatures for me to get on the ballot. They were able to help me get more than 8,500 signatures.”

Apgar, despite initial skepticism that an independent could win, said the Justice for Caroline group invested considerable hope in Higgins' campaign.

“We are gratified,” Apgar said.

It was a somewhat bittersweet victory, however, due to the death last October of Small’s mother, Karen McGahee.

“I’m just sorry she wasn’t able to see Jackie Johnson finally face some accountability,” Apgar said.

Higgins said Johnson was gracious in defeat.

“She called me this morning and congratulated me and also offered to allow me and my transition team to come into the office to help smooth the transition from her administration to mine," he said. "I am going to take her up on that opportunity and I am very appreciative of it.”

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

Jackie L. Johnson, District Attorney, Brunswick Judicial Circuit
Caption
Jackie L. Johnson, District Attorney, Brunswick Judicial Circuit

Credit: OFFICIAL PHOTO

Credit: OFFICIAL PHOTO