Opposing attorneys had raised flags about former Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson

2 attorneys tell I-TEAM she mishandled their cases

Former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson got international attention last year after she failed to bring charges in the early days of the investigation of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson got international attention last year after she failed to bring charges in the early days of the investigation of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. Although voted out of office last November, a Glynn County grand jury on Thursday indicted her on two charges connected to the lack of prosecution in that case.

Johnson became district attorney in 2010 when then-Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed her. She would later win the office in an election.

Until she lost her re-election bid last year, she was the top prosecutor for Brunswick Judicial Circuit, which includes Camden, Glynn, Appling, Jeff Davis and Wayne counties. During her decade in that job, she was in charge of several high-profile cases which included some other controversial ones.

Cell phone video showing Arbery’s shooting death caused outrage; coming out two months after Glynn County police and then-District Attorney Jackie Johnson decided to not charge the three men who chased him down.

Arbery was killed Feb. 23, 2020, after a white father and son, Greg and Travis McMichael, armed themselves and pursued the 25-year-Black man in a pickup truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood outside the coastal city of Brunswick, about 70 miles south of Savannah.

A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery at close range with a shotgun. The McMichaels said they believed Arbery was a burglar and that he was shot after attacking Travis McMichael.

Police did not charge any of them immediately following the shooting, and the McMichaels and Bryan remained free for more than two months until the cellphone video of the shooting was leaked online and Gov. Brian Kemp asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over the case.

Her initial handling of the Arbery cases, before other prosecutors were assigned to the job, put other cases she worked under the microscope.

Dashcam video from 2010 shows two Glynn County police officers shooting and killing Caroline Small after she led them on a chase. Cops had her car pinned and she was unarmed when they fired.

Caroline Small (Special to WJXT)

Johnson presented the officer-involved shooting to a grand jury. But defense attorney Bill Atkins, who represented Small’s family in a civil suit, told the I-TEAM she made several missteps:

  • Johnson provided the officer’s defense attorneys with evidence before she presented it to a grand jury.
  • Johnson went before the grand jury without presenting an indictment.
  • Johnson allowed defense attorneys to participate in the grand jury hearing by asking questions.

“She violated that -- plainly, unequivocally and there was no consequence other than the fact that two men went free,” Atkins told the I-TEAM in 2020.

Sgt. Robert “Cory” Sasser and Officer Todd Simpson were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the grand jury in a split decision, while an internal police investigation also found no wrongdoing. At the time, the police chief said Sasser and Simpson acted reasonably and within department policy in the situation, which they perceived as life-threatening and endangering public safety.

When asked whether he feels like the two officers should have faced charges, Atkins said, “Absolutely. I don’t think there is any doubt about it.”

He went on to say: “The whole thing was one of the worst abuses of authority and efforts to protect, and frankly, cover up police misconduct to me that I’ve ever seen. It’s remarkable to me that woman still has her job.”

The I-TEAM found Sasser was promoted months after the Small shooting.

Fast-forward to 2018 when Sasser was arrested on charges of misdemeanor simple battery and criminal trespass while divorcing his wife, Katie Kettles-Sasser. She said he tried to kick down her door and threatened to kill her and her friend, Johnny Edward Hall Jr., on May 13. That night was captured on police body camera footage.

Sasser, who was a lieutenant with the Glynn County Police Department at the time, was released on bond after that incident.

The Police Department suspended Sasser on May 15, 2018.

Two days later, Sasser was arrested after a standoff in the woods with police. He was charged with possession of a gun, which was against the terms of his release.

Following an internal investigation, the Police Department fired Sasser on May 24, 2018.

After the second arrest, Sasser was Baker Acted and ordered to have no contact with his wife, give up his guns and not possess any other firearms. Additionally, he was ordered to live with his sister in Alabama, seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and report to a private bond agency every 30 days.

When it came to his bond hearing, Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson “recused herself from the case” and assigned her Assistant District Attorney John Johnson to the case.

In late June 2018, according to the GBI, Sasser, 41, killed Kettles-Sasser, 34, Hall, 39, and himself.

Another lawyer who questioned Johnson’s legal practices was the district’s former chief public defender Kevin Gough, who said there were violations long before the Arbery case. He said the legal system across the state needs to be looked at closely.

“What about the 1000s of other people who have been run through the criminal justice system, and the tens of thousands across the state?” he questioned. “What’s being done to make sure that these kinds of problems don’t happen, don’t happen again.”

“I have no doubt that defendants did not get a fair trial, I have no doubt that people that were innocent under the law, went to jail. And you know, the sad thing is trying to figure out who they are is difficult.

The two sparred frequently in court. Gough was the court-appointed defense in the 2013 case where two teens killed 13-month-old Antonio Santiago, while his mother was pushing him in a stroller.

Gough said Johnson’s indictment shows his complaints for years – had merit – especially since the former police chief was also indicted in a subsequent corruption case.

“I think that’s a pretty damning indictment of the way law enforcement has been operating in Glynn County for some time. So you know, it’s troubling, and I’m sure the community is troubled by it.”

Brunswick attorney Alan Tucker, who released the Arbery footage to a local radio station, told News4Jax he had no comment about the indictment.

Johnson blamed the controversy over Arbery’s death for her election defeat last year. Independent candidate Keith Higgins collected thousands of signatures to get on the ballot – and won – he’s now the district attorney.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.