The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced Tuesday that it is looking into the possibility of prosecutorial misconduct in the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery murder case.
Attorney General Chris Carr asked GBI to investigate the offices of District Attorneys Jackie Johnson of Brunswick and George Barnhill of Waycross for their actions related to the Feb. 23 death investigation.
Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, are now charged with murder and aggravated assault in Arbery’s death, but those arrests came only after the GBI was asked to take over the investigation last week.
National outrage over the case swelled when cellphone video surfaced online showing the deadly shooting of the black man at the hands of two white men as he ran through a neighborhood outside Brunswick.
According to the man who captured the video, local police had it from Day 1, but in an interview with News4Jax, Carr said the state didn’t know about the video until after it was leaked to media by a Brunswick attorney and released online.
“I was tagged on Facebook by a friend,” Carr said. “I was stunned. I was shocked when I saw it. I’m a father. I’m a fellow human being. The first thing I thought – the initial reaction -- that’s not our Georgia. That’s not values we believe in.”
Less than two days after the video was released to the public and GBI was called in to investigate the shooting, agents arrested the McMichaels, who told police they thought Arbery matched the appearance of a burglary suspect 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.
“This is the kind of case where the family, the community and the state of Georgia deserve answers,” Carr told News4Jax. “When you look at the actions of the state when we were aware of this -- and how we believed no stone can be left unturned. This is a critically important moment and the state of Georgia is showing how we want to uncover the facts.”
Days after the shooting, at the request of Johnson, Carr appointed Barnhill to replace Johnson after Johnson recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael had previously worked for her office as an investigator.
In his request to GBI for an investigation of the attorneys, Carr said his office was not told in February when it agreed to appoint Barnhill to replace Johnson that Barnhill had already given his opinion to the Glynn County Police Department that “he did not see grounds for the rest of any of the individuals involved.”
Glynn County officials also told News4Jax that before Johnson recused herself from the case, her office also advised officers not to arrest the McMichaels because they were “not a flight risk.” Johnson denies those claims.
Carr said he also learned that not long after Barnhill was appointed, Barnhill found out his son, an assistant DA in Johnson’s office, had worked with Gregory McMichael in a previous case involving Arbery. But, Carr said, Barnhill “held onto the case for several more weeks after making this discovery” and didn’t alert the AG to the conflict until April 7.
“We must get to the bottom of it. We must get all the facts,” Carr said.
GBI said it is moving forward with the criminal investigation into the prosecutors, and anyone with information about the case is asked to contact the GBI at 1-800-597-TIPS (8477).
Carr has also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the handling of Arbery’s death investigation, citing the same reasons he gave GBI. He said he asked both departments to get involved because he wants it investigated from both a state and federal angle to make sure all laws were followed.
“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.”
Special prosecutor appointed
Carr has appointed Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes to serve as a special prosecutor and take over the Arbery murder case.
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.”
Another huge WIN for #JusticeForAhmaud! At the family’s demand— a special prosecutor will replace Tom Durden the S. GA prosecutor that sat on the case until video of Ahmaud’s murder was leaked. Joyette Holmes is out of @cobbcountygovt. Her office is being reviewed for conflicts. pic.twitter.com/rcuQ7UPOfE— S. Lee Merritt, Esq. (@MeritLaw) May 11, 2020
“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 Associated Press contributed to this report.