Former Brunswick district attorney focus of grand jury probe

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

The former Coastal Georgia prosecutor who was criticized and ultimately voted out of office last year because of how she handled the Ahmaud Arbery shooting and other cases is now the focus of a grand jury investigation, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

State Attorney General Chris Carr’s office has been calling witnesses and overseeing a Glynn County grand jury inquiry into former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, according to multiple people with knowledge of the matter who agreed to discuss the probe on condition they not be identified.

The scope of the grand jury’s review is unclear and no indictments have been announced. But Carr has been critical of the way Johnson handled the Arbery case, and last year his office requested a GBI investigation into the events surrounding her recusal from the case.

Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man, was shot and killed while running in a suburban neighborhood near Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Almost immediately, Johnson realized she had a potential conflict of interest because her former investigator Greg McMichael and his son, Travis, were involved in the killing. In fact, Greg McMichael called Johnson and left her a voice message shortly after the shooting.

Hours later, Johnson brought Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill into the case. On Feb. 24, he met with Glynn County police investigators and rendered an initial opinion that there was no evidence of a crime.

It wasn’t until a couple days later that Johnson notified Carr of her conflict and helped steer his office to Barnhill, noting that she had “reached out” to him about the case, according to Carr’s office.

Carr appointed Barnhill without knowledge that he had already been actively involved in the case and that Barnhill had a potential conflict of his own. His son was an assistant prosecutor in Johnson’s office and had previously worked with McMichael.

When Arbery’s mother learned of these intertwined relationships, she pressured Barnhill to step aside. He ultimately relented in early April 2020 when he asked Carr to appoint another prosecutor. Carr brought in a third prosecutor, Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden.

When the case exploded into national view in May 2020, new scrutiny was brought to these issues, creating embarrassment for Carr and raining criticism down on Johnson and Barnhill.

An AJC review of Johnson and Barnhill’s handling of the case published last year revealed that the pair didn’t follow state guidelines for handling conflict of interests, helping fuel questions of fairness from the outset of the case.

Carr on May 10, 2020 asked federal authorities to investigate Johnson and Barnhill’s actions. Two days later, he requested that the GBI investigate a potential case of prosecutorial misconduct. In a letter to the GBI, Carr’s office expressed concern about how long it took Barnhill to notify them of his potential conflict.

“The Attorney General is concerned that the actions of these offices possibly misrepresenting or failing to disclose information during the process of appointing a conflict prosecutor” may have violated state law governing a code of conduct by public officials, according to the May 11, 2020 letter by Blair L. McGowan, a senior assistant attorney general.

Both McGowan and her boss, Deputy Attorney General John Fowler, head of Carr’s criminal prosecution division, were in Brunswick late last month overseeing two days of grand jury proceedings in the matter involving Johnson. The grand jury is scheduled to reconvene on Monday.

The attorney general’s office would not comment on the grand jury.

“Our office can neither confirm nor deny the existence of grand jury proceedings,” Carr’s spokeswoman Katie Byrd said.

Johnson has not responded to text messages and phone calls seeking comment and has declined previous AJC interview requests. Last year, she told a radio station in South Georgia that she welcomed the GBI investigation and her actions after the shooting were meant to help authorities get to the truth.

“The one mistake I made in this case was trying to be helpful to the police,” she said.

Barnhill was seen exiting the Glynn County Courthouse grand jury room on one of the days the grand jury was meeting last month.

Barnhill did not directly respond to an AJC reporter’s text on Thursday seeking comment. However, he sent a text to the AJC that seems to have been intended for Wrix Mcllvaine. He is the lawyer Barnhill was seen with at the courthouse last month when the grand jury was in session.

“Wrix I got this text today and have not responded,” Barnhill texted on Thursday. “And I will not respond. Just FYI...”

Johnson lost her bid for re-election in November, ending her decade as district attorney of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, which includes St. Simons and Jekyll islands. Her tenure was filled with controversy, particularly around cases involving law enforcement.

She was appointed district attorney less than two months after the 2010 police shooting death of Caroline Small, a mother of two who was unarmed and shot multiple times by two Glynn County police officers.

That case dogged Johnson for much of her tenure. A 2015 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News revealed how she took extraordinary steps leading up to and during grand jury process that helped clear the officers. Several former assistant prosecutors in her office told the AJC they believed her actions in the Small case amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.

In 2018, one of the officers who killed Small, Lt. Cory Sasser, shot and killed his estranged wife and her male friend and then killed himself. Johnson’s office and the Glynn County police again came under scrutiny as questions and finger pointing abounded about who was responsible for allowing Sasser to go free and carry out his violence.

The Arbery case flew under the radar for two months after he was killed in 2020.

That changed after a video of the shooting was released on May 5. It went viral and helped shine a national spotlight on Glynn County, its top prosecutor and its criminal justice system. That helped usher in new calls for accountability and for Johnson’s ouster.

Within days, the GBI had been brought into the case to investigate the shooting and the McMichaels were charged with murder. Their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, who participated in the pursuit of Arbery and recorded the video, was also charged.

The Cobb County DA’s office was brought into the case on May 11, 2020 after Durden recused himself, saying his small office didn’t have the resources to handle the high-profile case.

Trial of the three men has been set for October.

Staff Writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.

Our reporting

Former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson is the focus of a grand jury probe in Brunswick. The scope of the probe is unclear, but Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office is presenting evidence to the grand jury, last year asked the GBI to investigate Johnson’s initial handling of the Ahmaud Arbery case. In her decade in office, Johnson faced criticism for the way she handled several high-profile cases involving current or former law enforcement officers.