When Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr assigned the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery to Ware County District Attorney George E. Barnhill, Carr was unaware Barnhill had already advised Glynn County police on the case.
Likewise, Barnhill failed to mention his previous communications with Glynn County police when he accepted Carr’s assignment to the shooting case, according to the attorney general.
The U.S. Department of Justice has been summoned to investigate these issues and communications between district attorneys and police in the wake of the Feb. 23 incident.
Carr formally asked the U.S. attorney with the Southern District of Georgia, Bobby Christine, to oversee the investigation. The investigation will focus primarily on communications between the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office and the Waycross District Attorney’s Office following the shooting.
The U.S. Department of Justice also will determine whether federal hate crimes are warranted. The FBI is assisting, along with DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
“The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia have been supporting and will continue fully to support and participate in the investigation,” DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said. “We are assessing all the evidence to determine whether federal hate crimes charges are appropriate. In addition, we are considering the request of the attorney general of Georgia.”
Arbery was running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood on that Sunday afternoon when Gregory McMichael, 64, and son Travis McMichael, 34, later telling police they suspected him of burglary, chased him down. Travis McMichael fired his shotgun three times, killing Arbery during what police were told was a struggle for the weapon.
Neither McMichael was arrested until May 7, two days after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in to investigate the case. The two remain in the Glynn County Detention Center without bond, each charged with felony murder and aggravated assault.
Gregory McMichael was an investigator with the Brunswick DA’s office for more than 20 years before retiring a year ago. He was a Glynn County policeman for seven years before that.
The DOJ’s investigation also will delve into communication Barnhill had with Glynn County police prior to his assignment to the case by the attorney general.
“We are committed to a complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset,” Carr said. “The family, the community and the state of Georgia deserve answers, and we will work with others in law enforcement at the state and federal level to find those answers.”
In a statement released Monday, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson said her office welcomes the DOJ investigation. “We are confident that the true facts will come out in the investigation,” the statement read. “Our obligation has been, and will always be, to honor, protect, and abide by the law.”
Johnson had recused herself from the case on the day of the shooting, citing Gregory McMichael’s connections with her office. Johnson told The News Saturday county police sought guidance from her office that day regarding whether officers had probable cause for arrest. Johnson told police she could not discuss the case because McMichael’s connections to her office could compromise the process.
Johnson said she reached out to the Waycross DA Office Feb. 23, asking whether attorneys there could assist Glynn police. Johnson told The News Barnhill and an assistant drove to Glynn County the next day to consult with county police. She had a brief conversation with Barnhill by phone during his drive over, but Johnson said she did not meet in person with him or communicate with him further that day.
Carr said he was unaware of prior communications between Barnhill and the police department when he assigned Barhiil the case. Johnson emailed a letter to Carr on Feb. 27, citing her office’s conflict of interest and asking that the case be assigned to another DA. Carr assigned the case to Barnhill that same day. Carr said Johnson also never mentioned that Barnhill had offered advice to the police department at her request.
“At the time of the request by the Brunswick Circuit District Attorney and acceptance by the Waycross Circuit District Attorney, neither revealed to the Office of the Attorney General that the Waycross Circuit District Attorney had already taken a role in the case in reviewing evidence and advising the Glynn County Police Department regarding whether to make arrests in the case,” Carr said.
A conflict of interest arose in the Waycross DA’s office shortly after. Barnhill’s son, George F. Barnhill, is an attorney with the Brunswick DA’s office.
George E. Barnhill informed Carr on April 7 that he was stepping down and that the case needed to be reassigned.
“In that request, the Waycross Circuit District Attorney again did not inform the Office of the Attorney General of his prior involvement in the case before his appointment ...” Carr said.
There was more, Carr said. In his April 7 notice to Carr, Barnhill revealed that he and the Brunswick DA had known for several weeks of another potential conflict. The younger Barnhill had worked with then investigator McMichael when the Brunswick DA prosecuted a 2012 case against Arbery, Carr was told. Arbery, then 19, was sentenced to five years probation as a first offender for bringing a handgun into a Brunswick High basketball game.
There was still more, Carr said. Carr said Barnhill offered Glynn County police “an initial opinion” on Feb. 24. He further sent county police a letter on April 2, offering his opinion that the McMichaels were carrying their weapons legally in the process of a citizen’s arrest which ended in deadly self-defense. Barnhill said charges were not warranted against the McMichaels in the shooting death.
Barnhill mentioned none of this to the attorney general.
The Waycross Circuit district attorney also failed to mention he had provided the Glynn County Police Department with a written opinion that no arrests should be made in the case.
Over the weekend, the GBI announced it is reviewing additional video connected to the case. According to 911 tapes that day, the deadly incident began when residents saw Arbery enter an open home that was under construction on Satilla Drive. The caller told the dispatcher Arbery walked inside the home, then exited and started running down the street again. Arbery was wearing a T-shirt, shorts and running shoes when he died. Friends and family say he was an avid jogger.
Attorney Benjamin L. Crump and S. Lee Merritt, representing the Arbery’s parents, said Saturday they reviewed the surveillance video from the home in question. The video shows he did nothing wrong, they said.