Former DA indicted for obstruction of justice in the Ahmaud Arbery case

Jackie Johnson, a former district attorney in Georgia, was indicted by state authorities over her misconduct in the investigation of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery

September 09, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Mural of Ahmaud Arbery at 1621 Albany Street, Brunswick Georgia, US. Arbery was shot to death in February, 2020. This building is scheduled to house the Brunswick African American Cultural Center. The mural was painted by Marvin Meeks in May 2020. Photo: Bubba 73 / Wikimedia Commons

A former district attorney in the US state of Georgia was indicted on Wednesday, September 8, on charges of mishandling and potentially obstructing the murder investigation of Ahmaud Arbery. Jackie Johnson, who served as district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit in Georgia, was arrested and put in custody at Glynn County jail. She was released shortly after on a bond of USD 10,000.

Johnson was indicted on September 2, by a grand jury in Glynn county, on two charges of violating her oath of office and of obstructing the police investigation. The three accused in the case, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory (Greg) McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, were not arrested for over two months after the incident.

Greg McMichael had served for years as an investigator in Johnson’s office until 2019, and had reportedly contacted her seeking legal advice shortly after the murder. It is not clear whether Johnson responded to McMichael’s call, but investigators have reportedly found that her actions during the investigation showed “favor and affection” towards him and also directed “that Travis McMichael should not be placed under arrest.”

Johnson had recused herself in the initial stage of the investigation, and recommended the state attorney general to transfer the case to George Barnhill, district attorney of the Waycross Judicial Circuit, citing conflict of interest.

Later, Barnhill also had to recuse himself from the case as a conflict of interest surfaced, after it turned out that his son had worked under Johnson as a prosecutor and also served alongside McMichael. It was also exposed that Johnson did not follow proper procedure in cases of conflict of interests while transferring the case.

In March 2020, two police commissioners from Glynn county had also accused Johnson of having attempted to delay the investigation by refusing to arrest McMichaels. Commissioner Allen Booker said at the time that the police involved in the case approached Johnson stating they “were ready to arrest both (Greg and Travis McMichael)… She shut them down to protect her friend McMichael.”

Another officer, Peter Murphy, also stated that the police “were told not to make the arrest” by the district attorney’s office under Johnson.

Shortly after the developments, the office of the State Attorney General, Chris Carr, requested the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate potential misconduct by Johnson in the investigation of Arbery’s investigation.

Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was killed at the outskirts of Brunswick city in February 2020, after an altercation between him and the three accused, who chased him in their cars after they saw him on an evening jog. Travis McMichael, who fired the three fatal shots that killed Arbery, stated that they suspected Arbery of being behind burglaries in the area and chased him to make “citizen’s arrest”.

The McMichaels also claimed that the shots were in self-defense, even though both of them were well-armed with a shotgun and a handgun, and Arbery was unarmed. Bryan shot the video of the incident, which was later leaked, as he accompanied the McMichaels in their chase. It was only after the video was made public by Greg McMichaels over two months later, in a bid to defend their public image, that the police made the arrests.

Prosecutors have argued that the three accused had no reason to either chase or fire at Arbery as he was unarmed and did not possess any stolen goods on him. Arbery also had no police records in his name. Activists have also argued that the nature of the violence show racial profiling on the part of the three perpetrators. The three are currently under arrest and will be facing trial for murder in October, later this year.

Arbery’s family have received the news of the indictment positively. Wanda Cooper Jones, Arbery’s mother, posted on social media shortly after Johnson was indicted last, “Former DA Jackie Johnson….Indicted!!! JusticeForMyBaby!!!!” The family’s attorney, Lee Merritt, also said in a statement that prosecutors “must be held accountable when they interfere with investigations in order to protect friends and law enforcement.”

After a nationwide uprising against racism and police violence, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, just weeks after the arrest of the three accused, the case received national attention for both the racially-charged nature of the murder and the alleged collusion of the district attorney to protect the accused. Protests were also witnessed in Brunswick demanding justice for Arbery.