Cobb DA appointed to prosecute murder suspects in Ahmaud Arbery case

Holmes: ‘Call to serve will not be taken lightly’

She’s held the position for only about 10 months. But Joyette Holmes, Cobb County’s first black district attorney, was thrust into the spotlight quickly when she was selected to prosecute the suspects charged in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a racially charged case that is drawing national attention.

State leaders hailed Holmes, a former chief magistrate court judge, as the best choice for the job, while others noted the decision once again links Glynn and Cobb counties and their prosecutors.

On Monday, Holmes — also a former defense attorney — became the third prosecutor assigned to the Arbery case when Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced he was appointing her.

“District Attorney Holmes is a respected attorney with experience, both as a lawyer and a judge,” 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.”

“District Attorney Holmes is a respected attorney with experience, both as a lawyer and a judge,” 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.”

Arbery, 25, was black, and the father and son charged with his fatal shooting, Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, are white. Arbery’s family said he liked to jog in the Brunswick area where he was shot. One of the suspects who confronted him that day told police they pursued him because they thought he had been involved in earlier neighborhood break-ins.

Though Arbery was killed in February, the homicide got little attention until a short video of the incident went viral. Last week, the story made national headlines, with countless calls for justice and further investigation. The GBI quickly charged the McMichaels after being asked to take over the investigation.

Holmes said Monday that her “call to serve will not be taken lightly.”

“Our office will immediately gather all materials related to the investigation thus far and continue to seek additional information to move this case forward,” she said.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who appointed Holmes as Cobb's top prosecutor last year, supported Carr's decision on Twitter Monday, tweeting: "I am confident that she will serve with integrity and transparency to ensure justice is served."

But some outsiders questioned, given Holmes’ relative inexperience as a prosecutor, whether her appointment was politically motivated. Holmes’ term ends in December and she will need the support of voters to keep her office. She is running as a Republican and has a Democratic opponent: Flynn Broady, the former Cobb assistant solicitor general.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Ahmaud Arbery shooting

Becoming the face of such a high-profile case would vastly improve Holmes’ name recognition, a potentially critical advantage in a competitive race.

“Why wouldn’t they pick someone who’s completely out of the political scheme?” Marietta attorney Ashleigh Merchant asked.

The Arbery case has already had two other prosecutors recuse themselves because they know Gregory McMichael, a former police officer. It’s not clear whether Holmes knows McMichael, but it is likely that staffers may know him. One Cobb assistant district attorney, Katie Gropper, previously worked in the Brunswick judicial circuit.

“They all know each other,” Merchant said.

Arbery’s parents applauded the move, while adding “it is imperative that the special prosecutor has no affiliation with the Southeast Georgia legal or law enforcement communities.”

“We implore District Attorney Joyette Holmes to be zealous in her search for justice, as she works to hold all of those responsible for the unjustifiable execution of an unarmed young black man in broad daylight,” said Benjamin Crump, one of three attorneys representing the family.

The Arbery case is just the latest in a growing judicial pipeline connecting Brunswick and Cobb. Because of their similar demographics — instrumental in jury selection — the two destinations have served as alternatives in a series of high-profile criminal trials.

In 2007, the trial of Stacey Ian Humphreys, accused of killing two Cobb real estate agents, was moved to Brunswick because of extensive pretrial publicity. Cobb returned the favor in 2013, playing host to the trial of a Brunswick teenager accused of fatally shooting a toddler. And in 2016, the trial of Justin Ross Harris, accused of intentionally leaving his son in a hot car to die, was moved to the coast.

» RELATED: 5 things to know about the new Justin Ross Harris trial

It remains to be seen whether the defense will seek a change of venue in a potential trial of the McMichaels.

Ron Carlson, a longtime University of Georgia law professor, said numerous other jurisdictions could have been asked to prosecute the case. Carlson doesn’t foresee a conflict with Holmes’ office despite the previous interactions. Though Holmes is a newcomer as district attorney, that will change with this case, he said.

“This is going to be a hugely, high-profile mark in her life,” Holmes said. “This case is the biggest one we’ve had in Georgia for a long, long time.”

Holmes brings a different perspective to the investigation as Cobb’s first female and African American district attorney. In July, Kemp appointed her to replace Vic Reynolds, who now leads the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Last week, Reynolds’ agency took over the Arbery case, announcing arrests in less than two days. Before becoming a judge, Holmes served as a prosecutor under Reynolds and Cobb County Solicitor General Barry Morgan. She has also operated her own law firm.

“She has worked all sides of the criminal justice system,” Morgan said. “So she brings a unique perspective to her work. She has got some great people in her office who are very experienced in these types of cases. I think she is going to assemble a great team.”