Ware County prosecutor saw ‘no grounds for arrest’ before passing on Arbery shooting death

25-year-old jogger’s shooting death now under investigation by the GBI

Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill (Blackshear Times photo)

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The shooting death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery has been passed through three district attorneys in the two and a half months since the man was shot and killed while jogging through a Glynn County neighborhood the afternoon of Feb. 23.

Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself because one of the men seen in the video of the fatal shooting pointing a gun at Arbery, Greg McMichael, is a retired investigator from her office.

His son, Travis McMichael, is the alleged shooter.

Next, the case was assigned to Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill, who wrote, “The autopsy supports the initial opinion we gave you on February 24th, 2020 at the briefing room in the Glynn County Police Department after reviewing the evidence you had at that time. We do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties.”

In the letter to Glynn County Police Capt. Tom Jump, Barnhill went on to go point-by-point why he felt Greg and Travis McMichael did not commit a crime in fatally shooting Arbery.

“It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William Bryan were following in “hot pursuit of a burglary suspect with solid first-hand probable cause,” Barnhill wrote. “Arbery initiated the fight. ... At that point, Arbery grabbed the shotgun (that Travis McMichael was holding). Under Georgia law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.”

DOCUMENTS: Glynn County police report | Waycross DA George Barnhill’s letter

RELATED STORIES: | Brunswick Attorney says he released video because ‘people had a right to know’ | Activists plan protest handling of case | 2½ months after deadly shooting, GBI joins investigation

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Jones-Cooper, said she started researching Barnhill’s connection to the gunmen, “Once I learned that there was some relationships between the DA in Glynn County and Ware County. I did that just by going on the internet and looking on Facebook and finding that these people were actually friends. ... And then I found out his son was actually working at the DA there."

In his letter to Jump, Barnhill acknowledges that Jones-Cooper shared her concerns with him.

“The victim’s mother has clearly expressed she wants myself and my office off the case. She sees a conflict in that my son works in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office where Greg McMichael retired some time ago," Barnhill wrote before requesting that the state should assign another prosecutor to the case, adding, “I appreciate there is immediate pressure on your department as to the issue of ‘Arrest.’”

“I didn’t hear anything back from the office until I received a call from the same young lady that Mr. Barnhill reassigned the case back to the state to be re-assigned.”

Ahmaud Arbery with his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones (Photo family shared with WJXT)

The Glynn County Police Department the District Attorneys Office and the attorneys for the McMichaels have not provided proof that Arbery burglarized any homes in the neighborhood.

“They have made reference to ongoing burglaries in this community, but some obscure, indistinct crime in the community does not empower the entire community to hunt down black men," said Lee Merritt, Arbery’s family attorney. “These men were not performing any police function or any duty as a citizen of the state of Georgia. These men were vigilantes. They were a posse and they were performing a lynching in the middle of the day.”

“We are livid that he even attempted to taint this case with his rancid opinion about why this is justifiable," Merritt said.

News4Jax has put in several open records requests to Barnhill’s office related to this case, but he cited that they cannot be released because it is an ongoing investigation.

“People need to let the American criminal justice system work. After it is completed, all of the facts and evidence will be available for the public to review," Barnhill replied.

About the Authors:

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

Digital election producer in 2022. He created WJXT.com in 1995 and managed The Local Station's website through 2021.