A grand jury is accusing former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson of obstructing a police officer and interfering on behalf of two murder defendants in the racially charged killing of Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020.
The grand jury indictment announced Thursday by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr charges Johnson with one felony count of violation of oath of office and one misdemeanor count of obstruction and hindering a law enforcement officer.
Carr convened a grand jury in June at the Glynn County Courthouse, county sheriff Neal Jump confirmed at the time. Carr would not comment at the time, but media outlets said the grand jury’s proceedings focused on Johnson and her actions in the aftermath of Arbery’s killing.
Travis McMichael, 35, shot the unarmed Arbery three times at close range with a 12-guage shotgun on a public street in the Satilla Shores neighborhood that Sunday afternoon. The deadly shooting occurred after McMichael, and his father, Gregory McMichael, armed themselves, jumped in a pickup truck and pursued Arbery after he ran past their home on Satilla Drive. Gregory McMichael, 65, retired in 2019 from a 20-year career as an investigator with the DA’s office and served nine of those years under Johnson.
The McMichaels and co-murder defendant William “Roddie” Bryan all are White. Arbery, 25, was Black.
Johnson immediately recused herself the day of the shooting, citing conflict of interest.
No significant action was taken on the case until May 7, when Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents moved in and arrested the McMichaels — and later Bryan — on charges of felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. The case had produced national outrage and cries of racial injustice by then, sparked when Bryan’s cellphone video of the deadly confrontation between the McMichaels and Arbery was leaked onto the internet.
However, the grand jury indictment alleges Johnson may have thwarted two Glynn County police officers from acting to make an arrest the day of the shooting. The grand jury alleges Johnson informed Glynn County Police officers Stephanie Oliver and Stephen Lowrey “that Travis McMichael should not be placed under arrest” the report said. The grand jury said Johnson “did knowingly and willfully hinder ... law enforcement officers with the Glynn County Police Department.”
The indictment further accuses Johnson of “showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation into the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, thereby failing to discharge her duties as district attorney.”
Additionally, Johnson is accused of funneling the case to Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill, and in doing so, “failing to treat Ahmuad Arbery and his family fairly and with dignity.” The indictment alleges Johnson “recommended DA Barnhill to the Attorney General’s Office for appointment as the case prosecutor without disclosing that (Johnson) had previously sought the assistance of Barnhill on the case.”
Shortly after the three men were arrested, Carr called on the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to investigate the actions of Johnson and Barnhill.
After recusing herself, Johnson contacted Barnhill the day of the shooting, asking him to offer Glynn County Police legal guidance. Barnhill met with police at the county police department the next day. It was later learned that he offered police officials an initial assessment that the incident appeared to be a case of self defense in the act of a citizen’s arrest.
According to reports, Johnson contacted Carr on Feb. 27, 2020, citing her conflicts in the case. Carr assigned the case to Barnhill that same day.
However, when calling for the federal investigation in May 2020, Carr heatedly asserted he was unaware that Johnson and Barnhill had already discussed the case. Carr said he also was unaware that Barnhill had already consulted with county police on the case. Further, it was later learned that Barnhill’s son, George F. Barnhill, served as a prosecuting attorney with the Brunswick DA’s office.
That conflict of interest prompted Arbery’s family to demand George E. Barnhill to step down, which he did in April. Carr then assigned the case to Hinesville DA Tom Durden. Carr later reassigned the case to the Cobb County DA, which is prosecuting the case.
Keith Higgins defeated Johnson to the win the Brunswick DA seat last November, a heated race in which Johnson’s handling of the Arbery case was often a focus. Before the election, Johnson faced repeated demands for her resignation from individuals and local civil rights groups upset over the Arbery case.