Special prosecutor appointed in Ahmaud Arbery murder case

Cobb County prosecutor appointed after family demands change, attorney says

VIDEO: Georgia’s attorney general has appointed a Cobb County district attorney to serve as a special prosecutor and take over the Ahmaud Arbery murder case.

Georgia’s attorney general has appointed a Cobb County district attorney to serve as a special prosecutor and take over the Ahmaud Arbery murder case.

Joyette Holmes is the fourth district attorney to be assigned to the case since the deadly shooting Feb. 23 that was captured on cellphone video.

No arrests were made until this month after national outrage over the case swelled when that cellphone video surfaced online showing the deadly shooting of the black man who authorities say died at the hands of two white men as he ran through a neighborhood outside Brunswick.

RELATED: Man who recorded the Ahmaud Arbery shooting has been receiving threats, attorney says | What we know about the deadly shooting of Ahmaud Arbery

Attorney S. Lee Merritt, who represents Arbery’s mother, called the appointment of a special prosecutor a win for the family, who demanded the case be taken out of the hands of District Attorney Tom Durden, who was the third prosecutor to take on the case.

In a tweet, Merritt said Durden “sat on the case until video of Ahmaud’s murder was leaked.”

“Our office will immediately gather all materials related to the investigation thus far and continue to seek additional information to move this case forward,” DA Holmes said in a prepared statement. “We appreciate the confidence that Attorney General Carr has in our office’s ability to bring to light the justice that this case deserves.”

According to the statement, once Holmes and her team have received the investigative file from the GBI, all facts and circumstances of Arbery’s death will be reviewed and all appropriate charges under Georgia law will be presented to a Glynn County Grand Jury for indictment.

Georgia’s statewide Judicial Emergency will continue through June 12, according to Chief Justice Harold D. Melton, but Holmes said her team will work as quickly as possible to move the case forward.

“The Cobb DA’s Office is also committed to ensuring that the family of Mr. Arbery is supported throughout the process of seeking justice in this case,” the statement read.

Merritt and attorney L. Chris Stewart also released a statement Monday:

"We recently learned that Georgia AG Chris Carr has appointed Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes as prosecutor, replacing Thomas Durden. We made this request of AG Chris Carr because the south Georgia prosecutorial community was tainted by the delay in action prior to the video being released.

The family is pleased that Mr. Durden will no longer be responsible for prosecuting two of the killers of Mr. Arbery.

This case has been mishandled from the very beginning and we look forward to a comprehensive third-party investigation by the Dept. of Justice into the previous prosecutors.

Ms. Holmes just spoke with Ms. Cooper-Jones and we are cautiously optimistic about this turn of events. We remain committed to the pursuit of justice for Mr. Arbery’s family and will provide any assistance necessary to Ms. Holmes in her new role."

Attorney Ben Crump and the Arbery family released the following statement on the appointment of a special prosecutor:

“In order for justice to be carried out both effectively and appropriately in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, 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.”

The father and son now charged with murder said they thought Arbery matched the appearance of a burglary suspect who they said had been recorded on a surveillance camera some time before.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, has said she thinks her 25-year-old son, a former high school football player, was just jogging in the neighborhood before he was killed.

Federal inquiry sought

State Attorney General Christopher Carr on Sunday asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the handling Arbery’s death investigation.

Carr wants the feds to look into the first two district attorneys who took on the case. Both had ties to one of the men arrested in Arbery’s murder.

READ: Carr’s letter to DOJ requesting federal inquiry

Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, are charged with murder and aggravated assault in Arbery’s death. Gregory McMichael is a former investigator for the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office, which is why Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case.

Glynn County Commissioner J. Peter Murphy said in a conversation with the police chief that he learned that before recusing herself, Johnson blocked an investigator with the Glynn County Police Department from arresting the McMichaels.

Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill was assigned the case next, but he had to recuse himself later after Arbery’s mother discovered Barnhill’s son also worked for the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office where Gregory McMichael worked.

DOCUMENTS: Jackie Johnson recusal | George Barnhill appointment | Barnhill recusal | DA Tom Durden appointment

According to a letter from Barnhill to Glynn County police, Barnhill told investigators on Feb. 24, the day after the shooting, that there weren’t grounds to arrest the McMichaels based on the evidence they had at the time, which according to “Roddy" Bryan, the man who recorded the deadly encounter, included the now infamous cellphone video.

Less than two days after the video was leaked online and GBI was called in to investigate, the McMichaels were hauled off to jail on murder charges.

Carr’s letter to the Department of Justice said he wants the federal government to look into communication about the case between Barnhill’s and Johnson’s offices.

He said that when Johnson contacted his office Feb. 27 to say Barnhill had agreed to take on the case in her place, neither of them revealed to his office that Barnhill “had already taken a role in the case in reviewing evidence and advising the Glynn County Police Department regarding whether to make arrests in the case.”

In requesting the inquiry, Carr also points to a letter his office received from Barnhill on April 7 that said “three to four weeks ago” Barnhill learned that his son and Gregory McMichael had helped with an earlier prosecution of Arbery when they both worked for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office.

“We are considering the request of the Attorney General of Georgia and have asked that he forward to federal authorities any information that he has about the handling of the investigation. We will continue to assess all information, and we will take any appropriate action that is warranted by the facts and the law,” Department of Justice spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

Johnson said in a statement Monday that a federal investigation “will bring full transparency to the entire investigation and we welcome it."

“There is a public misconception about this case due to false allegations against our office by those with an agenda,” Johnson’s statement said. "We are confident that the true facts will come out in the investigation. Our obligation has been, and will always be, to honor, protect, and abide by the law.”

More video released

On Saturday, the GBI confirmed that it has obtained other photos of video that might shed light on the case. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published footage from a surveillance camera at a Brunswick home near where Arbery was shot that shows someone who appears to be Arbery walking into a home under construction. Arbery then came back out and ran down the street. Someone else comes out across the street from the construction site, and then a vehicle drives off farther down the street, near where Travis McMichael lives.

Lawyers for Arbery's family say the video bolsters their position that Arbery did nothing wrong, and shows he did not commit a felony. Under Georgia law, someone who isn't a sworn police officer can arrest and detain another person only if a felony is committed in the presence of the arresting citizen.

“Ahmaud’s actions at this empty home under construction were in no way a felony under Georgia law,” the lawyers wrote in a social media post. “This video confirms that Mr. Arbery’s murder was not justified and the actions of the men who pursued him and ambushed him were unjustified.”

Last week, a Justice Department spokesman said the FBI is assisting in the investigation and the DOJ would assist if a federal crime is uncovered.

Protesters threatened

Georgia authorities said Sunday that they had arrested a 20-year-old man after investigating an online threat against people protesting the killing of Arbery.

Several hundred people had protested the case Friday in Brunswick, near the site where Arbery was fatally shot.

The GBI said state police arrested Rashawn Smith and charged him with dissemination of information relating to terroristic acts. He was taken into custody in Midway, a town about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Brunswick.

Earlier in the day, the GBI said it had "been made aware of a Facebook post that contains a threat to future protests related to Ahmaud Arbery."

Investigators later said they believe the threat was a hoax.

“Smith created a Facebook User ID of an unwitting individual to post a hoax threat,” the GBI tweeted.

It was not immediately clear if Smith has an attorney who could comment on the charge.

About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.