The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia DA criticized for handling of Ahmaud Arbery investigation ousted by voters

District Attorney Jackie Johnson campaigns for reelection on St. Simons Island, Ga., on Tuesday. (Terry Dickson/Brunswick News/AP)

As the local district attorney, Jackie Johnson was one of the first people Georgia police called in February to help the investigation into the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger chased and then fatally shot by a White former police officer and his son in Brunswick, Ga. But Johnson had a problem: She knew one of the suspects and would have to recuse herself.

It took Johnson three days, though, to report her conflict of interest — and her conduct in the meantime led to widespread criticism, an ongoing state investigation into her actions, and an independent challenger filing to oppose the Republican prosecutor.

On Tuesday, voters ousted Johnson, electing former prosecutor Keith Higgins by 5,000 votes, according to the Brunswick News, after a campaign that hinged on the accountability of the district attorney in police declining to charge Arbery’s killers for months.

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

“We overlook our local races,” Dwight Jordan, a local educator and activist who helped rally voters to vote out Johnson, told The Washington Post in October. “We can’t afford to do that anymore.”

Arbery, 25, was fatally shot on Feb. 23 while jogging in Brunswick. Gregory McMichael, then 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, then 34, claimed that they pursued him believing he was behind several break-ins, and said Travis McMichael shot Arbery when he tried to take his gun.

Cellphone video showed Arbery jogging past their truck and then being shot after struggled with one of the men.

Johnson knew Gregory McMichael because he had worked for years as an investigator in the DA’s office until 2019. But by the time Johnson called Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (R), who according to state law would choose a replacement, Johnson had already contacted District Attorney George Barnhill from the town of Waycross, Ga., to take over the case, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

During those three days, according to the Journal-Constitution, Barnhill met with police and decided the McMichaels did not commit a crime. In April, though, Barnhill also recused himself from the case because his son had worked in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office with Gregory McMichael.

Eventually, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case and charged Gregory and Travis McMichael with murder and aggravated assault on May 7. Later that month, William Bryan Jr., who recorded the shooting, was charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

Days after the video of Arbery’s death went viral, Carr requested an investigation from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation into Johnson’s and Barnhill’s conduct in the Arbery case. The Post reported last month that the state investigation is still being reviewed. Johnson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

At a debate last month, Johnson defended her actions, saying she was 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.

District attorneys are rarely ousted, even if they have been accused of misconduct, experts say. But a wave of killings of Black people throughout the country spurred an unusual movement for change in the five conservative counties Johnson oversaw as part of the Brunswick Judicial Court.

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.

Higgins, the first competitive challenger for the seat in decades, entered the race with nearly double the required number of signatures. Most were from those seeking justice for Arbery,

As former prosecutor with the district attorney’s office, Higgins held back from going after Johnson’s handling of the Arbery investigation. But he acknowledged he needed to repair a lack of community trust in the office.

“I look forward to working with the community and building back the faith in our legal system,” he said in a statement on Facebook.