BRUNSWICK, Ga. – A Georgia prosecutor who has faced criticism over her handling of the investigation into the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery will face electoral opposition in November after all.
No Democrat qualified to run against incumbent Republican District Attorney Jackie Johnson before the deadline before the June primary -- as many of events about Arbery’s death at the hands of a former investigator for Johnson’s office and that man’s son came to light.
It appeared Johnson would be unopposed for another four-year term in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, a southeast Georgia jurisdiction that includes Camden, Glynn, Appling, Jefferson Davis and Wayne counties.
Now Independent candidate Keith Higgins has qualified for the ballot to run against Johnson. Higgins told The Brunswick News that more than 6,500 signatures have been verified on his petition. He only needed 3,526 after a judge cut signature amounts required statewide because of COVID-19.
Johnson was first appointed to the office in 2010.
Arbery was fatally shot last Feb. 23 when a white father and son armed themselves and pursued the unarmed 25-year-old Black man, who was running in their neighborhood, according to authorities. More than two months passed before Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, were charged with felony murder and aggravated assault.
A third man, William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor of the McMichaels who authorities say had joined in their pursuit of Arbery and recorded the cellphone video of the shooting, also was subsequently charged with murder. All three men remain jailed, awaiting trial.
Gregory McMichael had been a longtime investigator for Johnson’s office. Johnson recused herself but handed the case off to a second district attorney. One county commissioner in Glynn County has claimed that officers were hesitant to arrest the McMichaels after the DA’s office told them it wasn’t necessary, but Johnson’s office has called that a “vicious lie” and denied wrongdoing The second prosecutor, George Barnhill, decided no charges were necessary. Barnhill was eventually removed over his own conflict of interest -- his son works for Johnson and had prosecuted an earlier case against Arbery.
Both Barnhill and Johnson are now being investigated by federal authorities. Barnhill also denies wrongdoing
After video of Arbery being shot emerged, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case. They arrested both McMichaels on charges of aggravated assault and murder May 7, less than 48 hours later.
Higgins, whose campaign website said is a former assistant district attorney for nearly 23 years, has refrained from directly criticizing Johnson’s handling of the Arbery case, but admits many more people wanted to sign his qualifying petition after the McMichaels were arrested.
“There was a period of time where we felt discouraged and down about it and wondered how this was going to be possible,” Higgins said. “Then God showed me how. Come May 8, I couldn’t answer the phone fast enough.”