Arraignment set for former DA accused of meddling in Ahmaud Arbery case

Development follows AJC reporting on unusual lag after indictment

More than 14 months after being indicted, former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson finally has an arraignment date.

On Tuesday, Senior Superior Court Judge John R. Turner scheduled Johnson’s first court hearing for Dec. 29. Turner’s order said on that day Johnson can formally enter her plea to two felony charges against her and that he will consider pending motions by her attorneys to dismiss one of the counts.

Lawyers following the high-profile case have said it is highly unusual for a judge to wait so long after an indictment to schedule such a hearing. The development comes after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the unusual lag.

Johnson, who has been free on bond, was indicted on Sept. 2, 2021. She stands accused of hindering the police investigation in the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder for allegedly telling two Glynn County police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael, the man who shot and killed Arbery. She is also charged with violating her oath of office.

Turner, a former Bulloch County judge, was assigned Johnson’s case because all the Glynn County judges recused themselves. His two-sentence order did not explain why there has been such a delay.

Johnson served as DA of the five-county Brunswick circuit from 2010 until she was defeated for reelection in 2020. She was indicted two months before McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael, who once worked for Johnson as an investigator; 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 as Arbery ran through the Satilla Shores neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. Once cornered by a pickup truck driven by Travis McMichael and a pickup driven by Bryan, Arbery charged at the shotgun-wielding McMichael, who fired three rounds, killing Arbery.

At trial, lawyers for the McMichaels and Bryan contended the three men chased Arbery to make a lawful citizen’s arrest. But the jury flatly rejected those arguments, convicting the McMichaels and Bryan of murder. The three men were later convicted of federal hate crimes charges for targeting Arbery because he was Black.

After the killing, Johnson recused herself from the case because Greg McMichael once worked for her. She then called District Attorney George Barnhill in a neighboring judicial circuit and asked him to look at the case. Barnhill oversaw the investigation before ultimately deciding to recuse himself from the case. But before he did so, he wrote a highly controversial letter in which he said he believed Arbery’s killing was justified.

The AG’s Office then assigned the case to the Cobb DA’s Office, which secured the indictment, tried the case and obtained the convictions at a trial that ended the day before Thanksgiving in 2021.

A motion filed six months ago by Johnson’s lawyers contends there is “not a scintilla of evidence” that shows Johnson told two Glynn County police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael the day of the shooting. The AG’s Office, which is prosecuting the former DA, filed a response urging the charge to be allowed to go before a jury at trial.

In the violation of oath of office charge, Johnson is accused of failing to treat Arbery’s family fairly and with dignity; showing favor to her former employee, Greg McMichael; and failing to tell the AG’s Office she had asked Barnhill for assistance with the case before recommending that he be assigned it.