The investigation into the Feb. 23 shooting death of Ahmaud Marquez Arbery is presently without a rudder after Ware District Attorney George E. Barnhill removed himself from the case last week at the request of Arbery’s family.
Arbery, 25, was shot dead around 1:08 p.m. on that Sunday in the Satilla Shores neighborhood after a confrontation with Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, both of whom were armed, according to the Glynn County Police report of the incident. Gregory McMichael told county police he and his son grabbed guns from Travis McMichael’s house and pursued Arbery after seeing him running down the street, according to the police report. The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery of burglarizing a home in the neighborhood, the report said.
Greg McMichael worked as an investigator with the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office for more than 20 years before retiring last May. He served seven years as a Glynn County Police officer prior to that. Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson cited a conflict of interest as a result and referred the case to the state Attorney General’s Office for reassignment.
The case went to Ware County DA Barnhill, based in Waycross. Barnhill’s son, George F. Barnhill, is an assistant DA under Jackie Johnson.
Barnhill said Monday that his son’s position as assistant to Johnson was a primary reason the family of Arbery requested he be removed from the case.
“I’m off that case since last week,” Barnhill told The News on Monday. “The family of the victim asked us to get off the case. The family was insistent that I get off the case. So I said, fine. I’m off of it.”
The Attorney General’s Office will now have to reassign the case to another district attorney’s office, he said.
The shooting death has caused a groundswell of protest in the community, from the black community in particular.
Arbery was black. The McMichaels are white and Satilla Shores is a predominantly white neighborhood.
Gregory McMichael told police there had been several recent break-ins in the neighborhood. He alleged security video in the neighborhood indicated Arbery as a suspect, the report said.
On that Sunday afternoon, the report said, McMichael said he was in the front yard of Travis McMichael’s house at 230 Satilla Drive when he saw Arbery running down the street. “McMichael stated he then ran inside his house and called to Travis (McMichael) and said, ‘Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go,’” the report said.
Gregory McMichael was armed with a .357 Magnum handgun and Travis McMichael was armed with a shotgun, the report said. The two men hopped into a pickup truck and pursued Arbery down Satilla Drive, McMichael told police.
The deadly confrontation occurred a block away at Satilla Drive and Holmes Road, farther inside the neighborhood. From the truck cab’s window, the two men shouted to Arbery, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,’” the report said.
They shouted stop once more, “at which time Travis exited the truck with the shotgun,” the report said.
Gregory McMichael alleges a struggle ensued over possession of the shotgun between Arbery and Travis McMichael. The shotgun fired twice, the report said.
Arbery dropped to the ground and died on the scene, according to the police report.
Shortly after receiving the case, Barnhill requested the Georgia Bureau of Investigation expedite its autopsy of Arbery, which was being conducted at the GBI Crime Lab in Savannah.
Barnhill said at the time he was particularly interested in the trajectory of the fatal gunshot. He also said the results from autopsy and toxicology lab tests could take up to six weeks before being completed.
“The autopsy was released on April 1 and it hit my desk on April 3,” Barnhill said. “We were waiting on the bullet wound to show the bullet’s path.”
The toxicology tests results also were completed, he said.
Barnhill would not comment further, saying the information attained will be handed over to the district attorney who is assigned the case.
He said the process could be delayed due to the state mandated reduced court activity as a result of coronavirus shelter in place guidelines.
“I’ve asked the Attorney General to act as fast as they can,” he said.
Among other venues of protest, a group has started the “I Run With Maud” page on Facebook. It includes the hashtag, “#JusticeforAmhaud.” It features photos of Arbery with friends and family.
Barnhill said his office has received numerous calls regarding the Arbery case. The Brunswick district attorney has received “several calls” as well, said DA spokesman Mark Spaulding.
Others on the page have said Arbery was an avid jogger and may have simply been out for a run in the wrong place at the wrong time when the deadly confrontation occurred.
Savannah Glider of Brunswick spoke out in a letter to The News on Thursday. “I cannot think of a single person who would not be fearful for their life if two men were chasing them in a truck with guns and wanted to stop and talk,” she wrote. “Our justice system has to step up and do the right thing here.”
Barnhill did not see a conflict of interest over the fact that his son is an attorney with the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. “Greg McMichael? I think I’ve met him twice, if that,” he said.
There are 49 district attorney offices statewide. Efforts to reach Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Katie Byrd were unsuccessful Monday.
“Somebody will get this case and do the right thing with it,” Barnhill said.