Former DA was indicted after Ahmaud Arbery shooting. 14 months later, case remains paused

It has been more than 14 months since former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson was indicted, accused of hindering the police investigation in the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder.

But Johnson, who was granted bond, has yet to have her initial court appearance — an arraignment that typically occurs within a few weeks or months of an indictment and during which a defendant is formally made aware of the charges and enters a plea.

“That has never happened to me in a case, going that long without an arraignment,” said criminal defense attorney Dwight Thomas, who has been practicing in the metro area for decades.

A grand jury in Brunswick handed up Johnson’s two-count indictment on Sept. 2, 2021. In March, Johnson’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss one of the charges, contending “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. The state Attorney General’s Office filed its response in opposition in early May.

Yet six months later those motions are still pending, without a court hearing addressing them or a ruling by Senior Judge John “Robbie” Turner. He was assigned the case because the judges in the Brunswick circuit recused themselves.

“It’s most unusual,” said Don Samuel, a criminal defense attorney who has followed the case. “It’s not very fair to the defendant – having this hang over her head for so long.”

Samuel added, “This is the judge’s job. He’s going to have to do it.”

Glynn County Superior Court Clerk Ron Adams agreed. “It’s the judge’s responsibility,” he said.

Turner did not respond to phone or email messages seeking an explanation. He served more than 30 years on the bench as both a Bulloch County State Court judge and a Superior Court judge. In 2016, he announced he was not seeking reelection and would become a senior judge to help out when needed.

“We are fully prepared to present our case in court, and we eagerly await for the court to set an arraignment date,” AG’s Office spokesperson Kara Richardson said. “Our goal has always been and continues to be to ensure maximum justice for Ahmaud Arbery and his family.”

Brian Steel, one of Johnson’s lawyers, declined to comment.

Johnson served as DA of the five-county Brunswick Judicial Circuit from 2010 until she was defeated in a reelection bid in 2020. She was indicted on two felony counts 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 through the Satilla Shores neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. Once cornered by Travis McMichael’s pickup and Bryan’s pickup, Arbery charged at the shotgun-wielding McMichael, who killed Arbery with shotgun blasts.

The three men were later convicted of federal hate crimes for targeting Arbery because of his race.

Johnson is accused of telling Glynn County police Sgt. Stephanie Oliver and lead investigator Stefan Lowery not to arrest Travis McMichael on the day of the shooting. That charge — obstruction and hindering a law enforcement officer — is a felony with punishment of up to of five years in prison.

The motion filed by Johnson’s lawyers six months ago cited an interview Oliver gave the GBI as well as her grand jury testimony in which she said no one pressured her to arrest or not arrest anyone. Lowery, the lead investigator, told the GBI that assistant DA Rocky Bridges had told him that, because the McMichaels were not a risk to flee, no arrests had to be made that day, the motion said.

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

In their court filing, AG’s Office attorneys noted that Johnson exchanged more than a dozen phone calls with McMichael in the days following Arbery’s murder, even though she had recused herself from the case. The phone calls suggest Johnson may have been keeping McMichael, her former employee, in the loop about the investigation.