Recused Prosecutors Ignored State Guidelines When Investigating Ahmaud Arbery's Death

Illustration for article titled Recused Prosecutors Ignored State Guidelines When Investigating Ahmaud Arbery's Death
Photo: Sarah Blake Morgan (Associated Press)

To say the initial investigation into Ahmaud Arbery’s death was handled poorly is an understatement. It took nearly two months after he was violently killed for the people responsible to be arrested and face charges. New information about how the case was initially handled provides some insight as to why.


A review conducted by AJC has found that Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson didn’t follow proper protocols when she discovered she had a conflict of interest with the case. Based on public records and statements Johnson has made herself, she essentially disregarded the rules off jump. Training provided by Attorney General Chris Carr’s office and the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia states, “Once you have a conflict, the prosecutor’s office is done — no indictments, no accusations, no bonds and no finding a substitute prosecutor.”

Johnson ignored that protocol when she realized that Greg McMichael, one of the men charged with murdering Arbery, previously worked in her office as an investigator. Instead of immediately recusing herself, she recruited Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill. It took Barnhill only a day to issue an opinion finding that Greg and Travis McMichael weren’t guilty of criminal misconduct in Arbery’s death. Johnson waited three days after the shooting to notify Carr’s office that she had a conflict of interest.

It took several weeks before Barnhill recused himself after Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, discovered the attorney had a conflict of his own. Barnhill’s son worked in Johnson’s office and had a history of working alongside Greg McMichael. Barnhill recused himself but not before writing a three page letter to police reiterating his belief that no crime had been committed. This move has been met with derision from many prosecutors, as it’s a widely held belief that once a prosecutor decides to recuse themselves from a case, they should take no further action in trying to influence that case.

Hinesville District Attorney Tom Durden took over the case and asked he Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look at the case after a video of Arbery’s death was leaked publicly. This eventually led to both McMichaels being arrested on May 7 on murder charges. Last week, William Bryan, the man who recorded the video of Arbery’s death, was arrested on murder charges as well. Durden recused himself from the case, citing a lack of resources to properly prosecute the case. Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes is now overseeing the case.

It’s unclear whether Barnhill and Johnson broke any laws in their handling of the case, though their actions have been widely criticized by prosecutors throughout the country. “The way this is supposed to work is the opposite of how they did it,” former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James told AJC.

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They need to lose their jobs. Even if they didn’t break a law, it’s pretty likely they violated ethical rules governing attorney conduct. I don’t know the GA ethics rules, but conflicts of interests are usually taken pretty seriously by ethics boards.