Johnson could not be reached by phone Wednesday, and she did not respond to a text seeking comment. Her attorney, John Ossick, declined to comment on the case.
Johnson, 49, lost her bid for re-election last November after facing sharp criticism and calls for her ouster over the way she handled the Arbery case.
She had been district attorney since 2010 and had faced a number of controversies about her decisions and prosecutorial style. Those included a 2010 fatal police shooting of Caroline Small, an unarmed mother of two. A graphic dashcam video showed a barrage of bullets fired by two Glynn County officers spraying across the windshield of Small’s car. Johnson was accused of favoring the local police and steering a local grand jury that cleared the officers.
In 2018, Johnson faced additional questions after one of the officers’ involved in Small’s death, Cory Sasser, shot and killed his estranged wife and her male friend after Sasser had been arrested for domestic violence and released on bond. But neither of those cases drew the national attention and heat that the Arbery case would bring.
In May 2020, when the disturbing video went viral that showed Travis McMichael, who is white, fatally shooting Arbery, who was Black, the case and Johnson’s decisions in the hours and days after the killing faced the scrutiny of a national spotlight. Questions quickly surfaced about the manner in which Johnson recused her office after the shooting and whether she had followed state guidelines for that process.
Johnson at the time said she welcomed the review and maintained she did nothing wrong. But a year later, reports that Carr’s office was presenting evidence before a Glynn County grand jury about the case intensified speculation in Brunswick that Johnson could be in trouble. The grand jury met over several sessions this summer, and Carr’s office listed 16 witnesses that it called or was ready to call. This included George E. Barnhill, the district attorney from the neighboring Waycross circuit.
At Johnson’s behest, Barnhill last year had reviewed evidence the day after Arbery was killed and quickly determined that no apparent crime had been committed.
Just days after his review, Johnson officially notified Carr that she had recused her office, and she steered the AG’s office to appoint Barnhill. Carr had no knowledge of Johnson and Barnhill’s early interactions when he appointed Barnhill as the conflict prosecutor on Feb. 27, 2020. (Barnhill would later have to recuse himself when questions of his own potential conflicts surfaced. His son had worked as an assistant prosecutor for Johnson, had worked with Greg McMichael and had been involved in an earlier case involving Arbery.)
This sequence later became an embarrassment for Carr and his office, and because of Johnson’s action in the case, the attorney general changed a policy. It no longer accepts informal suggestions from a local DA, when they have a conflict of interest, about who the attorney general should appoint to handle a case.
At a virtual press conference after Johnson’s indictment, Arbery’s mother and father praised Carr for his office’s work on the case and both said the AG kept in close contact with them during the grand jury proceedings.
“Ahmaud Arbery’s life matters,” Ben Crump, the family’s attorney, said. “That’s what I read when I read that indictment. It expressly stated she showed favor and affection for the killers.”
There are several members of the legal community who question Johnson’s indictment.
“It is just not even close in my opinion to alleging a crime against Jackie Johnson in this case,” criminal defense attorney Don Samuel said. “I’m just shocked that the attorney general would think that this indictment even comes close to being a legitimate indictment and against a district attorney.”
Samuel was particularly critical about the obstruction charge that said Johnson told officers not to arrest Travis McMichael the day of the shooting. “I will never waiver from the position that a DA who uses caution and says I want to finish the investigation before I make arrests is in fact doing her job, not committing a felony in Georgia,” he said.
Johnson’s indictment comes just weeks before the Arbery murder trial against the McMichaels and a third man, William “Roddie” Bryan, is set to begin at the Glynn County courthouse.
The stakes for Brunswick and the state of Georgia couldn’t be higher, with the case expected to draw national attention. Officials are preparing for potential protests in Brunswick.
The state is on its third DA’s office acting as conflict prosecutors since Johnson stepped aside. If the state’s COVID-19 outbreak doesn’t delay the case, prosecutors from the Cobb County district attorney’s office are expected to be in Brunswick on Oct. 18 when jury selection will begin.