As folks nationwide await a small-town district attorney’s decision regarding the Feb. 23 shooting death of a black man on a neighborhood street in Glynn County, the Southern Poverty Law Center called Friday for federal oversight of the investigation.
Former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney investigator Gregory McMichael and his adult son, Travis McMichael, both of whom are white, armed themselves after Gregory McMichael spotted Amhaud Arbery running down the street in their Satilla Shores neighborhood at around 1:09 p.m. that day, according to a Glynn County police report. They pursued Arbery for a block to Satilla Drive and Buford Road, where Travis McMichael stepped out of the truck with a shotgun, the report said. Gregory McMichael said Travis McMichael fired twice after he and Arbery struggled for the gun.
Arbery, a former standout Brunswick High linebacker known by friends and family to be an avid jogger, died at the scene, police said. Arbery wore shorts and a T-shirt, according to reports.
The two men suspected Arbery, 25, of committing burglary in their Satilla Shores neighborhood, the report said.
In its statement, the Southern Poverty Law Center called for federal involvement in the investigation, which already has been transferred to the offices of three Georgia district attorneys in three different judicial circuits.
“We demand an immediate investigation by federal officials into Ahmaud’s death given local law enforcement’s failure to act,” Southern Poverty Law Center President and Chief Executive Officer Margaret Huang said in a prepared statement. “The killing of black and brown people must stop, and it begins with each of us demanding accountability and justice.”
The shooting has created a groundswell of national outrage from people who suspect Arbery’s shooting death was racially motivated. The upheaval has had the unintended consequence of overwhelming City Hall and its police department with cries of protest. Satilla Shores is located in southern Glynn County off U.S. 17, outside of Brunswick’s city limits. Officers from the Glynn County Police Department responded to the shooting.
Brunswick police have no involvement in the case.
However, in response to the deluge of calls and emails demanding action from Brunswick, Cornell Harvey, the city’s first elected black mayor, issued a public statement Thursday explaining the city has no direct involvement in the investigation.
“The city of Brunswick will monitor the progress of the case but has no direct involvement in the matter and therefore will have no further comment,” Harvey said in the statement.
In an interview with The News on Friday, Harvey said he is following the case closely and said he too has concerns regarding a just outcome.
“The first thing I need to let people know is that my police department really has no dealing in this whatsoever,” said Harvey, who is in the last year of his second term as mayor. “But as the mayor of Brunswick, I stand with everyone requesting justice be done. This is getting national attention and its handling reflects not only on our community, but it also reflects on the whole state of Georgia.
“I’ve gotten calls from all over the place — Seattle, California, Canada. I try to answer all of them. I want people to know that although this didn’t happen in Brunswick, it still happened in our community. And we are all about having a safe community. There are a lot of good people in the community, but bad things do happen.”
Harvey said he thought the case should have been turned over immediately to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation due to Gregory McMichael’s past connections with local law enforcement and the local judicial system. McMichael, 64, retired in May of 2019 after more than 20 years as an investigator with the Brunswick Judicial Circuit DA’s office. Prior to that, he served seven years as a Glynn County police officer.
“Mistakes, personally, I think have been made,” Harvey said. “The GBI should have handled this case from the beginning, as soon as McMichael’s involvement was disclosed.”
Admittedly, the Glynn County Police Department was in organizational turmoil at the time of the shooting, Harvey noted. Police Chief John Powell and three other members of the department’s leadership were indicted Feb. 27 by a county grand jury on charges stemming from an alleged coverup of corruption in the narcotics squad. Powell was placed on administrative leave and faces charges that include perjury and violating his oath of office.
The Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Squad was disbanded early in 2019. The officer accused of sleeping with a confidential informant resigned rather than face an internal affairs investigation.
Veteran law enforcement officer and Glynn County native Jay Wiggins was named acting police chief when Powell was put on administrative leave. Wiggins was director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency at the time of the shooting.
Wiggins has since spoken with Harvey, local NAACP President Rev. John D. Perry II, and other community leaders, Harvey said.
“We realize that during the time of the shooting the Glynn County Police Department was under a lot of heat,” Harvey said. “But we don’t shy away from responsibility. We are asking for justice like everyone else.”
The day after the shooting, the county police department issued a three-sentence statement, saying “we are working closely with the District Attorney’s Office, who has assigned a prosecutor to determine if potential charges may be forthcoming.”
As first reported in The News on Feb. 28, the investigation was turned over to Ware County District Attorney Charles E. Barnhill. Brunswick Judicial Circuit DA Jackie Johnson told The News she immediately informed county police of a conflict of interest in the case because of McMichael’s employment with her office.
However, DA Barnhill stepped down from the case in early April, after yet another conflict of interest was raised because Barnhill’s son is an assistant with the Brunswick DA. The Attorney General turned the case over to DA Durden of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit on April 13.
Durden could not be reached Friday.
Harvey said he agreed with The News’ editorial on Monday that the investigation now requires state oversight. He also thinks a grand jury should hear the case.
“I think the state needs to get involved with it,” Harvey said. “I want to make sure we are doing the right thing, the proper thing.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Huang wants the case to go even higher, to the federal level.
“Any system that stands by as an unarmed man is gunned down in the street without any obvious justifiable reason is also filled with bias and hate,” the president of the Montgomery-based civil rights organization said. “At least on the surface, it appears that Ahmaud is the victim of a senseless violent act.”