The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ahmaud Arbery’s case shook up a DA race in deep-red Georgia — and put accountability on the ballot

(Bert Roughton)

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Ahmaud Arbery’s killing in February has fueled nationwide protests. Three men face murder charges after 74 days without arrests. But a fight for justice was still going for many who gathered here in the sweltering heat last weekend to get out the vote.

“We’ve been taught that justice is blind,” said Regina Johnson, who said she once taught Arbery and is now running for school board. “But when a son of the city, a child that I taught … is treated this way, we learn that justice was no longer blind and it was denied.”

“We overlook our local races,” Dwight Jordan, a local educator and activist, said as workers set up chairs for a mostly young and African American crowd of about 50 people. “We can’t afford to do that anymore.”

On the local ballot: Jackie Johnson, the first district attorney called in when Arbery was fatally shot while jogging just a short drive away. State authorities opened an investigation this spring into Johnson and a neighboring prosecutor’s handling of the case that stretched for months without arrests, after viral video led some to compare the 25-year-old Black man’s killing to a lynching.

Now Johnson — a Republican who previously coasted to victory in deep-red south Georgia — has a viable challenger, an independent who made the ballot late this year in no small part because of signatures from people seeking “Justice for Ahmaud.”

Arbery’s case is one of many killings of Black Americans to spur outrage this year. But with Johnson up for reelection, it’s put racial justice and accountability on the ballot in an unusually stark way, in a conservative area less receptive to this year’s talk of systemic racism and sweeping reform. District attorneys nationwide are rarely unseated and rarely punished for misconduct, experts say, making the push for Johnson’s removal even more striking — a shake-up in a race where the general election has not been competitive in decades.

Johnson, who oversees five counties in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, had the Arbery case only briefly before recusing herself. She says her role has been misunderstood: “The lack of trust has been the result of people with an agenda who have exploited this case and divided our community for their own purposes,” she said this month at a debate filled with heated accusations.

A spokesman for Johnson’s office said she was not available for an interview, and Johnson’s campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries.

But for many she has become the face of a corrupt criminal justice system, suddenly under new scrutiny for years of controversial choices not to charge. Black voters in particular have been jolted into action, residents say.

“We’ve got to get up off our stools,” said Regina Johnson, the school board candidate. “We have a responsibility to our children and our community to speak up now, to show up and to make our voices heard.”

Shifting attention

Experts are skeptical that elections work to hold prosecutors accountable, even as district attorneys wield enormous influence: Their no-charge decisions are not subject to review by a court, said Georgia State University law professor Clark Cunningham.

“That’s an extraordinary power we give to district attorneys,” said Cunningham, the university’s W. Lee Burge chair of law and ethics. “And there’s been very little public attention to the fact that … there’s no oversight for that power.”

Arbery’s case fueled a push for new accountability measures: Georgia lawmakers are mulling a state group dedicated to investigating prosecutor misconduct. In Arbery’s community, meanwhile, the public is paying new attention to their own power after struggling in past years with voter turnout, said Kregg Richardson, one of Arbery’s football coaches at Brunswick High School.

“A lot of people didn’t understand the importance of the DA or even that it was an elected job,” Richardson said, as Georgia and other states also see unprecedented surges in early voting. “I look at Ahmaud as one of my sons, and watching that video was very hurtful for me."

Arbery’s high-profile death has brought a spotlight to older cases that earned Johnson critics but never hurt her at the polls. One of the most controversial cases came early on in her tenure, in 2011, when a grand jury did not indict two local police officers for a fatal shooting.

The former Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who headed the case told reporters that the shooting was unjustified, “the worst one I’ve ever investigated.” But Johnson went out of her way to help the officers, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. She shared her evidence with defense attorneys months ahead of the grand-jury proceedings and agreed not to offer jurors charges unless they asked, the news organizations found.

Mark Spaulding, the District Attorney’s Office manager in Glynn County, emphasized that a federal judge rejected the family’s wrongful death lawsuit, which he said “basically endorses what the grand jury didn’t do.”

That case came before widespread outrage over a series of police shootings of minorities, said Georgia House Rep. Jeff Jones (R), who is supporting Johnson’s opponent — before “all of that emotional buildup throughout the country."

Arbery’s killing, in contrast, would feed into a massive reckoning over racism still underway, striking a nerve when the public was primed to react.

Role still in dispute

When Glynn County police arrived to find Arbery dead on the street on Feb. 23, they spoke with Gregory McMichael, a former police officer who worked in the Brunswick DA’s office until 2019. Johnson would soon write to the Georgia attorney general to recuse her office from the case, citing her connection.

But her office’s actions before then — still in dispute — spawned accusations of, at best, a sloppy approach to conflicts of interest and at worst, participation in a coverup to protect three White men who found a Black man suspicious.

McMichael said he and his son Travis McMichael pursued Arbery in the belief he was behind neighborhood break-ins, according to a police report. Travis McMichael shot Arbery while fighting with him for control of the weapon, he said. Cellphone footage taken by a third man — provided to law enforcement that day, according to the GBI — shows Arbery jogging past the McMichaels’ truck, then struggling with one of them before being shot.

Two county commissioners have said that DA staff told officers that day not to make arrests. The Glynn County police chief declined to comment, saying Arbery’s case is ongoing. Johnson’s office brought in Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill to advise police starting the day after Arbery’s death — inappropriately inserting herself into the case, critics say.

Barnhill, too, would eventually recuse himself, saying that his son works in Johnson’s office and previously prosecuted Arbery along with Gregory McMichael, though McMichael’s lawyers say he had never encountered Arbery before as an investigator for the DA.

Within a day of Arbery’s death, Barnhill had reviewed the evidence, met with police and given the same opinion he would reiterate later in a detailed letter: There were no grounds to arrest any of the three men involved.

Spaulding, from Johnson’s office, says their staff spoke with police but never told them what to do. They enlisted Barnhill because police were insistent on getting a prosecutor’s help despite the Brunswick DA’s need to recuse, he said.

Three days after the shooting, Johnson reached out to the office of Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asking that someone be assigned to advise the police, according to a letter provided by Carr’s office. Neither Johnson nor Barnhill told the attorney general that Barnhill had already stepped in to do so, Carr’s office says, or that his son could pose another problem.

The attorney general appointed Barnhill.

By April, under pressure from Arbery’s mother, Barnhill wrote that he believed it best to step aside, but — in a move decried by fellow lawyers — still offered police a final defense of those now charged: Georgia law protected their right to perform a “citizen’s arrest,” Barnhill wrote, and then use deadly force in self-defense after Arbery “initiated the fight.”

Asked why Johnson did not disclose that Barnhill’s son worked for her, Spaulding said that is not a “legal conflict.” In a debate this month, Johnson vehemently denied wrongdoing in Arbery’s case.

“I saw that video on television when everyone else did,” she said. “I think what people miss here is that when my office conflicts out of a case, we don’t look at the evidence.”

This spring, Carr asked the GBI and then the Justice Department to examine potential misconduct by Barnhill and Johnson. Carr’s office is still reviewing the GBI’s file forwarded in August, said spokeswoman Katie Byrd. The Justice Department said it could not confirm whether an investigation was underway.

Barnhill told The Washington Post that state law and State Bar rules prevent him from commenting on the case.

“This is to ensure a fair and just trial for all parties,” he wrote in an email. “Everyone needs to let the Court and the criminal justice system do their work.”

The McMichaels and the man who filmed have pleaded not guilty.

‘Like a wildfire’

Keith Higgins, a lawyer who spent more than 20 years in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office, launched his independent bid for Johnson’s job last August. He thinks he had no more than 1,500 signatures of support by the time the coronavirus pandemic brought life to a halt.

Then, in May, the video of Arbery’s killing spread online. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over, the McMichaels were arrested in two days, and suddenly people Higgins had never met wanted to sign his petition to join the ballot.

“It was like a wildfire, he said. “I couldn’t answer my phone fast enough. Couldn’t answer the door fast enough.”

The same groups who gathered in outrage over Arbery’s death helped to circulate Higgins’s petition, said Brunswick pastor Darren West, a leading voice for Johnson and Barnhill’s removal. With no guarantee that others would take action, West said, “we put it on our community to do our job at the vote, at the polls.”

Some wonder if either candidate in Brunswick will be a true champion for that community’s interests. Arbery’s case has been a searing topic in the election, but the latest candidate forum stuck to modest criminal justice reforms. There was no talk of police overhaul or systemic racism — issues animating some other, more liberal races shaped by protests this year, from the mayoral contest in Portland, Ore., to the district attorney race in Los Angeles.

Jordan, the local activist and educator, said he wants to hear more about what candidates will do for the Black community. “Maybe in this case for four years, Higgins would be the better choice until we can get more,” he said.

Higgins qualified for the ballot in September with upward of 8,500 signatures, far more than he needed. He’s a conservative, he says, but he’s running under the slogan “People, Not Politics,” attacking Johnson on ethics. He walks a fine political line, sharing concerns with demonstrators about the district attorney’s decisions but also saying he does not support the organization Black Lives Matter.

Mailers sent out by Johnson’s campaign, according to Higgins and local media, accuse Higgins of wanting to defund the police and “pandering to protesters,” echoing Trump’s “law and order” attacks on Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“Her strategy in this case is to divide and conquer, to pit Republican versus Democrat, to pit Black versus White,” Higgins said.

Johnson’s slogan is “Vote Republican.” Campaigning in counties that went as much as 4 to 1 for Trump in 2016, she’s given away a Trump pistol at a turkey shoot, posed for pictures at a Trump 2020 Flotilla and released a tough-on-crime video decrying “rioters, antifa mobs and looters.”

Some of her supporters say that as much as they like her politics, they are anguished over Arbery. Camden County Republican Women head Beth Porter says that, conflict of interest or not, she thinks her friend had a duty to do something. “You should have had him arrested right then,” she recalls telling her earlier this year.

Others are unconcerned by how the Arbery case played out. C.B. Yadav, a businessman active in Republican politics who also knows Johnson, said he and many friends believe Travis McMichael acted in self-defense.

Of Arbery, he asked: “Why is he jogging 10 miles from his house?”

Arbery was shot about two miles away from home.

A win for Johnson would not be the first letdown for activists in the case. An effort to recall Barnhill, who is not up for election until 2022, fizzled when people struggled to get signatures in a pandemic.

The leaders of that effort are planning to regroup, though. Community leaders expect the same for Johnson if she prevails.

“The people are not going to let it just die,” said West, the pastor in Brunswick.

Knowles reported from Washington.