Georgia voters showed prosecutor Jackie Johnson the door this week in a clear repudiation of her job investigating the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year. Johnson was the first district attorney to investigate the case, in which Arbery, an unarmed Black man, was chased down and killed by two white men while he was going for a jog. Johnson was widely criticized (and is currently being investigated) for her handling of the case.
Johnson was soundly defeated by Independent Keith Higgins, who used to work as an assistant prosecutor in the Brunswick district attorney’s office for more than 20 years before Johnson took over in 2010. She fired Higgins soon after. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports, Higgins defeated Johnson, a Republican, by a margin of 66 percent to 34 percent.
Both Higgins and Johnson acknowledge that the Arbery case was the primary reason for Johnson’s defeat at the ballot box.
“It was a very big factor,” Johnson told ABC News in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m confident that when the truth finally comes out on that, people will understand our office did what it had to under the circumstances.”
Earlier this year, Higgins said he had struggled to get petitions to challenge Johnson, who was running for re-election unopposed. But when news of Arbery’s killing at the hands of two white men broke national headlines in May, local residents upset with Johnson’s handling of the case flocked to Higgins’ campaign.
“I couldn’t answer my phone fast enough, I could not answer my door fast enough,” Higgins said. “People were coming wanting to sign and wanting me to get on the ballot.”
Higgins needed just 3,000 signatures to get on the ballot but ended up amassing 8,500 signatories in the coastal Georgia community.
Johnson and another Georgia district attorney, George Barnhill, are both being investigated by federal authorities for their roles in investigating the slaying of 25-year-old Arbery, who was chased down, ambushed, and fatally shot by Gregory McMichael and his son Travis just outside of Brunswick, Ga. in February.
Johnson recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael was a retired investigator who had worked in Johnson’s office—but as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported, Johnson was supposed to immediately call Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (R), who was then supposed to find a replacement DA, according to state law.
Instead, Johnson took three days, during which she contacted District Attorney George Barnhill from Waycross, Ga. to lead the investigation. According to the AJC, Barnhill met with police during that time and decided the McMichaels did not commit a crime. Two county commissioners from Glynn County also said police were explicitly told by Johnson’s office not to arrest the McMichaels—an allegation Johnson denies.
Barnhill ended up recusing himself from the Arbery case in April because his son had worked in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office alongside Gregory McMichael.
It wasn’t until video of Arbery’s killing—taken by William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor and accomplice of the McMichaels’—went viral in May that momentum in the investigation picked up. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case, arresting both McMichaels on charges of aggravated assault and murder less than 48 hours after the videos’ release. Bryan was later charged with murder.
As The Washington Post notes, experts say district attorneys are “rarely ousted,” even when they’ve been accused of misconduct. Johnson, in particular, in her leading the Brunswick Judicial circuit oversaw five counties considered to be conservative. But the Arbery case tipped voters against her and brought to light past controversies.
From the Post:
For critics, Johnson became a prime example of a corrupt criminal justice system, The Post reported last month. Arbery’s case brought to light some of her past controversial cases. In 2011, she aided two police officers who were indicted on a charge of a fatal shooting, according to an investigation by the Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. Johnson shared evidence with the defense attorneys and agreed to not offer charges unless the grand jury asked for them, according to the news investigation.
As the AJC reports, unofficial election returns show Johnson actually won four of the five counties in her circuit. But Glynn County, the circuit’s most populous county and the place where Arbery was killed, stood strongly against the prosecutor, ultimately delivering Higgins his victory.