Motion: No evidence former DA hindered police after Arbery killing

Jackie Johnson, the former district attorney of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. Johnson served as DA from 2010 until 2020 when she was defeated in a reelection bid. (Photo: COURTESY)

Credit: pro

Credit: pro

Jackie Johnson, the former district attorney of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. Johnson served as DA from 2010 until 2020 when she was defeated in a reelection bid. (Photo: COURTESY)

Allegations that former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson hindered the police investigation in the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder are baseless and should be dismissed before trial, according to a motion filed Wednesday by Johnson’s attorneys.

The motion, citing GBI witness interviews and grand jury testimony, said “there is not a scintilla of evidence” that Johnson told two Glynn County police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael, the man who shot and killed Arbery. Instead, it contends, charging Johnson with obstructing the investigation “is wholly specious, unjust and is an impermissible, politically motivated ‘hit job.’”

The State Attorney General’s Office, which obtained the indictment, will file a response opposing Johnson’s motion, office spokeswoman Kara Richardson said. “We look forward to presenting our case in court.”

When announcing the indictment, Attorney General Chris Carr said his office was “committed to ensuring those who are entrusted to serve are carrying out their duties ethically and honestly.”

GBI Director Vic Reynolds declined to comment on the motion. “The GBI conducted the investigation,” he said. “Once our investigation was completed, our case file was turned over to the Attorney General’s Office.”

Johnson served as DA in the five-county Brunswick Judicial Circuit from 2010 until she was defeated in a reelection bid in 2020. She was indicted in September, two months before McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were tried and convicted of Arbery’s murder.

Arbery, a 25-year-old, unarmed Black man, was chased by the McMichaels and Bryan, who are white, through the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. After about five minutes, Arbery, trapped between two pickup trucks, was killed with shotgun blasts as he lunged at Travis McMichael and tried to get control of his weapon.

The McMichaels were sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Bryan, who shot the cellphone video of the killing, was given life with parole. The three men were later convicted of federal hate crimes for targeting Arbery because of his race.

Travis McMichael (left), William "Roddie" Bryan and Greg McMichael are set to be sentenced Friday for the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

Credit: Associated Press

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Credit: Associated Press

The indictment accuses Johnson of telling Glynn County Police Sergeant Stephanie Oliver and lead investigator Stefan Lowery not to arrest Travis McMichael the day of the shooting. The charge – obstruction and hindering a law enforcement officer – is a felony with a maximum punishment of five years in prison.

At the time, Arbery’s family praised the indictment. During a press conference, Ben Crump, one of the family’s attorneys, said Johnson “may not have pulled the trigger on the day Ahmaud was murdered, but she played a starring role in the cover-up.”

But the motion filed by Johnson’s attorneys, Brian Steel and John Ossick, contends there is no evidence to support such an accusation.

”At no time did former district attorney Johnson ever utter any direction, order, edict, instruction, request or any other communication, either directly or indirectly, that Travis McMichael or anyone else involved in the brutal slaying of Mr. Ahmaud Arbery not to be taken into custody at any time,” the motion said.

The allegation “is a complete and utter fabrication of reality,” the motion said.

Among the motion’s assertions:

  • After an exhaustive investigation by the GBI and FBI, the Attorney General’s Office was provided their findings and recorded interviews “which completely exonerated former district attorney Johnson of any wrongdoing.”
  • In an interview with a GBI agent, then-Glynn County Police Captain Tom Jump said were no outside influences placed on his officers to arrest or not arrest anyone involved with Arbery’s killing. Jump later told the grand jury it was his officers’ opinion the killing was in self-defense and that officers would not have allowed Travis McMichael to go home if he was suspected of a murder.
  • Oliver, the police sergeant, told the GBI that no one, including Johnson and her prosecutors, pressured her to arrest or not arrest anyone in the case.
  • Lowery, the lead investigator, told the GBI that investigators reached out to the DA’s Office hours after the shooting for advice. Assistant DA Rocky Bridges called back and, after determining the McMichaels were not a risk to flee, said no arrests should be made that day.
  • Appearing before the grand jury, Oliver made it clear she was not prevented from making any arrests by Johnson or anyone else in the DA’s Office, the motion said.
  • After Glynn Police Officer Rod Nohilly interviewed Travis McMichael, he then went to talk to Greg McMichael in a separate interview room at 4:19 p.m. During that discussion, Nohilly told McMichael no one would be charged that day. This occurred before Glynn police first contacted prosecutors in the DA’s office for advice at 5:11 p.m.

When initially contacted, Bridges told the officers the DA’s office had to disqualify itself from the case because Greg McMichael once worked as a DA’s investigator. Because of this, Johnson arranged for George Barnhill, the DA in the neighboring Waycross Judicial Circuit, to meet with Glynn police officers the following morning.

Neither Bridges nor fellow Brunswick prosecutor Liberty Stewart, who was also involved in the initial stages of the case, told the GBI that Johnson prevented the arrest of the McMichaels or Bryan, the motion said.

Glynn County police initially believed the shooting was justified after watching Bryan’s cellphone video, the motion said. Lowery told the GBI he believed there was “gray area” and the killing was not “black and white.” For that reason, he believed there was no reason to make an arrest the day of the shooting and that decision was agreed to by all police officers involved, the motion said.

GBI agents later assigned to the investigation and Cobb County prosecutors who were appointed to the case disagreed. In May 2020, less than two days after getting involved, GBI agents arrested the McMichaels and charged them with murder. They would do the same with Bryan two weeks later.

In their motion, Johnson’s lawyers shared that view, calling what happened to Arbery an “unthinkable, offensive, unjustified killing.”

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The motion to dismiss will be decided by Senior Judge John “Robbie” Turner, a visiting judge from Bulloch County who was assigned the case.

Johnson is also charged with a second felony count: violating her oath of office by failing to treat Arbery and his family fairly and with dignity; showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation; and failing to disclose she had asked neighboring DA Barnhill for assistance before recommending to the AG’s Office that he be assigned the case.

This count will be addressed in future pleadings, said the motion filed by Johnson’s attorneys.