Former district attorney in Ahmaud Arbery case indicted

Former District Attorney Jackie Johnson of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Former District Attorney Jackie Johnson of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM

A Glynn County grand jury on Thursday handed up a criminal indictment against former district attorney Jackie Johnson for her handling of the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing.

Johnson is charged with obstruction of a police officer, which is a misdemeanor. On the day of the shooting, she allegedly told two Glynn County police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael, the man who shot and killed Arbery, the indictment said.

Johnson is also indicted for allegedly violating her oath of office, a felony, for “showing favor and affection” to Greg McMichael, who is Travis McMichael’s father and is also charged in the case. Johnson failed “to treat Ahmaud Arbery and his family fairly and with dignity,” the indictment states.

The charges stem from Attorney General Chris Carr’s request in May 2020 for the GBI to investigate a potential case of prosecutorial misconduct during the investigation into Arbery’s death.

“Our office is committed to ensuring those who are entrusted to serve are carrying out their duties ethically and honestly,” Carr said Thursday. “We thank the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Glynn County grand jury for their hard work. While an indictment was returned today, our file is not closed, and we will continue to investigate in order to pursue justice.”

Johnson, who could not be reached for comment, was roundly criticized and ultimately voted out of office for the way she handled Arbery’s fatal shooting. In a radio interview last year, she denied wrongdoing.

“The one mistake I made in this case was trying to be helpful to the police,” she told WIFO-FM in Jesup. “… In retrospect, I was trying to do a good deed and get them some help and guidance to help them do their job. It’s now being used against me.”

She added, “I don’t fear the truth. I fear lies.”

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump said Johnson should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law without leniency.

“The path to justice for Ahmaud Arbery and his family has been a long and arduous one,” Crump said in a statement. “But today’s indictment is yet another step in the right direction. Former DA Johnson may not have pulled the trigger on the day Ahmaud was murdered, but she played a starring role in the cover-up.”

Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was unarmed, was shot and killed Feb. 23, 2020, in the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside of Brunswick. He had been chased down by three white men: Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor. The McMichaels and Bryan have been charged with murder and are scheduled to stand trial on Oct. 18.

Travis McMichael and his father, both of whom were armed, began chasing Arbery in a pickup truck after Greg McMichael saw Arbery running down the street. Bryan soon joined the chase in his own truck and took the cellphone video showing Arbery being pinned in by the two trucks and then charging at Travis McMichael, who fired three fatal shotgun blasts.

Johnson, as the local district attorney, had an immediate conflict of interest because Greg McMichael had worked in the DA’s office as an investigator for years before retiring in 2019. In fact, McMichael called Johnson just minutes after the shooting.

“My son and I have been involved in a shooting and I need some advice right away,” McMichael said in a voice message on Johnson’s phone that was later played in court. “Please call me as soon as you possibly can.”

It has not been divulged whether Johnson and McMichael had a discussion about the shooting after he left the message.

A few days later, without following state guidelines governing conflicts of interest, Johnson informed the attorney general’s office she had steered the case to George Barnhill, district attorney in the neighboring Waycross Judicial Circuit. In turn, Carr formally appointed Barnhill without knowing Barnhill had a potential conflict of his own: His son was a prosecutor in Johnson’s office and had previously worked with McMichael.

The indictment alleges that after Johnson disqualified her office from the case and recommended Barnhill to be appointed, she did so “without disclosing that (she) had previously sought the assistance of DA Barnhill on the case.”

The indictment also discloses that Stephanie Oliver and Stephan Lowrey, the two police officers Johnson allegedly told not to arrest Travis McMichael the day of the shooting, are listed as witnesses in the case.

When Arbery’s mother found out about Barnhill’s potential conflict of interest, she pressured him to step aside, which he did. Carr ultimately appointed the Cobb County district attorney’s office to oversee the case. Last year, its prosecutors obtained the murder indictment against the McMichaels and Bryan.

In August 2010, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Johnson district attorney of the five-county Brunswick Judicial Circuit on the Georgia coast. Last November, attorney Keith Higgins, running as an Independent, unseated Johnson with almost 53% of the vote.