US district attorneys condemn recused prosecutor in Ahmaud Arbery case

Supporters gathered for a rally in Ahmaud Arbery's honor in Brunswick on Friday, May 8, 2020. (Photo: Bert Roughton Jr. / For the AJC)

Supporters gathered for a rally in Ahmaud Arbery's honor in Brunswick on Friday, May 8, 2020. (Photo: Bert Roughton Jr. / For the AJC)

A national association of district attorneys is condemning the actions of a prosecutor who eventually removed himself from the Ahmaud Arbery case, and expressed concern that his handling of the case could prevent a “just outcome.”

In a strongly worded statement over the weekend, the National District Attorneys Association took particular issue with George Barnhill’s issuing a detailed letter exonerating the McMichaels on April 3 after he had concluded that he had a conflict of interest in the case. The association has 5,500 members and represents two-thirds of state and local prosecutors’ offices.

“We must strongly disagree with District Attorney George Barnhill’s decision to share his opinion of whether Greg and Travis McMichael should be arrested after he decided to recuse himself from the case,” the association said.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Ahmaud Arbery shooting

The association said the letter could influence jurors and make another prosecutor’s job more difficult. “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.”

Barnhill could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Even before he was appointed by Attorney General Chris Carr to prosecute the Arbery case, Barnhill advised Glynn County police not to arrest Travis McMichael, 34, and Gregory McMichael, 64. The case made almost no progress for the two-and-a-half months that followed.

Gregory McMichael (left) and his son Travis McMichael (Photos: Glynn County Detention Center/AP)

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After a two-day investigation, the GBI on Thursday charged both with felony murder and aggravated assault in the case.

Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson brought Barnhill into the case the day of the shooting, records show. Her office already had decided to recuse itself because Gregory McMichael had worked as an investigator at the department 20 years before his retirement last year.

Johnson has not explained why she picked Barnhill, who was elected in 2014 after a long career as a Waycross Judicial Circuit prosecutor.

After reviewing the evidence — including the now infamous 36-second video that shows the McMichaels confronting and shooting Arbery — Barnhill told Glynn County police the morning after the shooting that he believed the men were justified in their decision to pursue Arbery. He also argued they shot the unarmed 25 year old in self-defense.

Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot to death in February 2020. Two arrests were made in the case in May.

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Carr officially named Barnhill prosecutor four days later. After Arbery’s family complained that Barnhill had a conflict because his son works as an assistant district attorney in Johnson’s office, the prosecutor officially recused himself on April 7.

He had acknowledged his conflict of interest by April 2.

“At that point, his involvement in the case should have ceased,” the association said. “Instead District Attorney Barnhill wrote a letter, which has now become public, in which he offered a gratuitous and detailed opinion regarding the hurdles to any prosecution of the individuals involved in the shooting of Mr. Arbery.”

Carr last week also said Barnhill should never have accepted the case under the circumstances.

Barnhill’s role has become a source of bitter contention between Glynn County commissioners and the district attorney's office.

A county review of the case found that Barnhill met with Glynn detectives on the morning of Feb 24 and by noon had advised them “that the act was justifiable homicide and for detectives to continue their investigation and provide him with lab reports and any additional pertinent information.”

Police had taken the McMichaels to headquarters for questioning the afternoon of the shooting and called Johnson’s office for advice, the county report said. Johnson’s assistants told the police that the McMichaels posed no flight risk and shouldn’t be arrested. The assistants also said that the department had a conflict of interest and would bring in another prosecutor.

Two commissioners, Peter Murphy and Allen Booker, have questioned the propriety of Barnhill’s being involved in the case so early. They have blamed his Feb 24 advice against arresting the McMichaels as a key factor in the long delay in the investigation

The commissioners also accused Johnson's office of telling the police to "stand down" after they contacted her office for legal advice.

Johnson has labeled their assertions false and put the blame on Glynn police for failing to do their jobs. In a statement, Johnson dismissed the commissioners accusations as "an attempt to make excuses and ignore the problems at the Glynn County Police Department, for which they are ultimately responsible.

“As evidenced by the events of this week, the GBI was able to investigate, make a probable cause determination, and make arrests within two days of receiving the case,” Johnson said. “That is what a law enforcement agency does.”

Johnson confirmed that her office had suggested Barnhill confer on the case after she had determined that she had a conflict of interest. She provided no further explanation. She officially recused herself on Feb. 27.

On April 13, Carr appointed Tom Durden, the Liberty County district attorney, to prosecute the case. Durden has said he intends to seek indictments from a Glynn County grand jury.

GBI Director Vic Reynolds gives updates on the Ahmaud Arbery case Friday morning, May 8, 2020. (Photo: Bobby Haven/The Brunswick News)

Credit: Bobby Haven

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Credit: Bobby Haven

At a Friday press conference in Brunswick, GBI Director Vic Reynolds declined to speculate on why earlier investigations didn’t produce any arrests.

“I can’t answer what another agency did or didn’t see,” Reynolds said. “But I can tell you that based on our involvement in this case and considering the fact we hit the ground running Wednesday morning and within 36 hours we had secured warrants for two individuals for felony murder, I think that speaks volumes for itself.”