ATLANTA (AP) — Local law enforcers are now being investigated in the shooting of a black man who was chased down by two white men in Georgia.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and federal authorities to probe how local prosecutors handled the killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. It took more than two months and the release of a video of the shooting before Gregory and Travis McMichael were charged with murder and jailed.
“Unfortunately, many questions and concerns have arisen regarding, among other things, the communications between and actions taken by the District Attorneys of the Brunswick and Waycross Circuits. As a result, we have requested the GBI to review in order to determine whether the process was undermined in any way,” Carr said in a statement Tuesday.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said federal prosecutors have asked Carr to share any results, and are also considering whether hate crimes charges are warranted.
Arbery was fatally shot Feb. 23 in a subdivision just outside the port city of Brunswick. Gregory McMichael told police he and his grown son armed themselves and pursued the young man because they they thought has was a burglar running down the street. Cellphone video of the killing leaked online last week, fueling a national outcry.
Brunswick Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson defended her office’s involvement, which she insisted was minimal because Gregory McMichael worked for her as an investigator before retiring a year ago.
“I’m confident an investigation is going to show my office did what it was supposed to and there was no wrongdoing on our part,” Johnson told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday.
Johnson said Glynn County police contacted two of her assistant prosecutors the day of the shooting, seeking legal advice. She said her assistants immediately responded that they couldn’t get involved because the prosecutors’ relationship with McMichael posed a conflict of interest.
Asked if anyone in her office told police not to arrest the McMichaels or suggested the shooting may have been justified, Johnson said, “Absolutely not.” She said it was the police who brought up self-defense during their call.
“The police represented it as a burglary case with a self-defense issue,” Johnson said. Police were seeking “guidance on how to proceed and whether to make an arrest. Our office could not advise or assist them because of our obvious conflict.”
Johnson said she reached out to neighboring Waycross Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill asking if his office could advise Glynn County police. Because it was a fatal shooting, she said, “I didn’t want the case to stall.”
Carr ended up appointing Barnhill to take over on Feb. 27, four days after the shooting. But in his letter Monday asking the GBI to investigate possible misconduct by the prosecutors, Carr said he was never told that Barnhill had already advised police “that he did not see grounds for the arrest of any of the individuals involved in Mr. Arbery’s death.”
Johnson said she couldn’t recall if she had told Carr’s office that she enlisted Barnhill’s help before recusing herself. Barnhill had the case for about a month before he stepped aside under pressure because his son works for Johnson as an assistant prosecutor. The phone at Barnhill’s office in Waycross rang unanswered Tuesday.
Tom Durden, the D.A. in nearby Hinesville, next took the case, and made little apparent progress until the video emerged and he called in the GBI. On Monday, Carr replaced him with Cobb County District Attorney Joyette M. Holmes, one of only seven black county prosecutors in Georgia.
She’s based in metro Atlanta, far from the coastal Georgia community in Glynn County where the shooting happened, and is “a respected attorney with experience, both as a lawyer and a judge,” said Carr, a Republican.
The McMichaels told police they chased Arbrey because they believed he matched the appearance of a burglary suspect caught on surveillance video in their neighborhood. According to the police report, Gregory McMichael said Arbery attacked his son before the younger McMichael shot him. The autopsy showed Arbery was hit by three shotgun blasts. The video appears to show the last two shots, before Arbery staggers and falls face down.
Wanda Cooper Jones said she thinks her son was simply jogging in the neighborhood before he was killed.
Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, have been jailed since Thursday. Neither had lawyers at their first court appearances, done by video link from the Glynn County jail. With courts largely closed because of the coronavirus, a grand jury can’t be called to hear the case until mid-June.
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.