Arbery case: New prosecutor, new evidence; new investigations next?

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr appointed Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes to prosecute the father and son charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

As the state investigation into the killing of a black jogger welcomed a new prosecutor, the U.S. Attorney for Georgia’s Southern District previewed possible federal hate crimes against the father and son accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.

Also on Monday, the man who shot the video capturing Arbery’s death spoke out for the first time, and the owner of the home construction site in Glynn County that the victim is believed to have entered minutes before he was shot Feb. 23 said, through his attorney, there had been no thefts on the property.

It made for a dizzying array of developments in a case that, for more than two months, seemingly had none. Now, a woman of color will shepherd the criminal trial against Greg and Travis McMichael; a month ago, a local prosecutor was convinced the former cop and his son had acted lawfully. Federal involvement could mean more charges and potentially stiffer sentences for the accused killers, whose story was challenged by a part-time neighbor.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Ahmaud Arbery shooting

Greg McMichael, 64, said that there had been several break-ins in the Satilla Shores neighborhood just south of Brunswick and he suspected Arbery was responsible. Arbery appeared on surveillance video that showed a burglary in progress, McMichael, former investigator with the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, told Glynn County police. He provided gun cover for his 34-year-old son, Travis McMichael, who shot Arbery three times. The McMichaels were arrested Thursday and charged with felony murder and aggravated assault.

Video of the shooting, posted online last Tuesday morning, drew widespread condemnation and prompted the state to take over what had been a local investigation. It was filmed by Satilla Shores resident William “Roddie” Bryan, who, according to Greg McMichael’s statement to police, “attempted to block (Arbery), which was unsuccessful.”

Bryan wouldn’t say how he ended up on the scene, with such a clear view of the confrontation, but denied being involved in any type of plan.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Bryan told a Jacksonville TV station. “I’m trying to get my life back to normal, and it’s been smeared for the last week.”

His attorney, Kevin Gough referenced “issues” in the neighborhood, an apparent nod to alleged burglaries. The elder McMichael told police he recognized Arbery from surveillance video.

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

Attorney J. Elizabeth Graddy, who represents Larry English, owner of the home under construction, said a motion-activated camera installed at the site captured no criminal activity.

“Even if there had been a robbery, however, the English family would not have wanted a vigilante response,” Graddy said. “They would have entrusted the matter to law enforcement authorities. On February 23, the English family was two hours away from the Satilla Shores neighborhood and was unaware of the tragedy that was unfolding.”

Arbery’s family said he was an avid jogger and that’s what he was doing in the neighborhood that day. Graddy said English doesn’t know the McMichaels.

Graddy spoke to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday to try to “correct the mistaken impression” that English had shared the video or other information with the McMichaels prior to the Feb. 23 confrontation. English had no involvement with “the senseless killing” of Arbery and he did not call 911 the day of the incident, she said. He was in Douglas, where English, 50, lives with his family.

The report he made to police in the months before the incident was on a non-emergency line and he reported that his motion-sensor camera taped someone on the property, but there was no evidence of anything taken, Graddy said.

“He never used the word ‘burglary’,” she said. “He never shared any of this information with the McMichaels, whom he did not even know. Nothing was ever stolen from the house — which, again, was a construction site.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Saturday reported that a security video on a home across from the construction site taped someone that appeared to be Arbery entering the construction site minutes before the shooting. He was on the property for less than five minutes and didn’t appear to take anything.

It remains unclear how Bryan may have gotten involved. GBI Director Vic Reynolds said Friday that Bryan is under investigation and could be subject to arrest.

The decision whether to prosecute him now falls in the hands of Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, who on Monday became the third prosecutor appointed by the state to lead the criminal investigation.

Holmes will bring a different perspective to the case, just as she has to the DA’s position in Cobb. Last June, she became the county’s first female and African-American district attorney after Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her to replace Reynolds.

“District Attorney Holmes is a respected attorney with experience, both as a lawyer and a judge,” Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said, “and the Cobb County District Attorney’s office has the resources, personnel and experience to lead this prosecution and ensure justice is done.”

» MORE: What we know so far about the Ahmaud Arbery shooting

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice said it is “considering” Carr’s request to review the actions of Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who recused herself from the McMichael probe four days after the shooting, and George Barnhill, DA for the Waycross Circuit, who was appointed as her first replacement.

The AG’s office alleges Johnson invited Barnhill to review evidence in the case and provide guidance to Glynn police before he was officially appointed.

Johnson, in a statement, said she welcomed federal intervention.

“There is a public misperception about the case due to false allegations against our office by those with an agenda,” Johnson said. Last week, two Glynn County commissioners told the AJC Johnson prevented police from pursuing charges against the McMichaels. “We are confident the true facts will come out in the investigation.”

And could another investigation be in the works? Additionally, DOJ spokesperon Kerri Kupec said federal authorities “are assessing all of the evidence to determine whether federal hate crime charges are appropriate.”

Barnhill issued this statement in response to a request for comment: “The McMichael/ Arbery Case is an pending ongoing Criminal Case in the State of Georgia. As such, it is not subject to open records requests or release of any information. Further as a member of the State Bar of Georgia I am not allowed by State Law and State Bar rules to have any public comment on the facts, or on the law, or on the news stories about the case, to ensure a fair and just trial for all parties. Let the courts and the criminal justice work.”

Georgia is one of four states without hate crimes legislation. Former federal prosecutor Tom Withers said it’s too early to tell whether the DOJ will launch any additional investigation related to Arbery’s death.

“More likely they’ll step back and let the state’s case play out before making a decision,” said Withers, now in private practice in Savannah.

He said a corruption case against local officials, even if investigated by the feds, would likely be prosecuted by the state.

“It’s hard to see what they might have here besides obstruction and violation of oath of office,” Withers said.

AJC staff writers Jeremy Redmon and Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.

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