Thursday’s indictment says Johnson showed “favor and affection” to suspect Greg McMichael, who was previously an investigator in her office, and also failed to “treat Ahmaud Arbery and his family fairly and with dignity” when she sought help from another district attorney — now also under investigation — who argued the shooting was justified before recusing himself.
Johnson is also accused of obstructing law enforcement by directing that Greg McMichael’s son, Travis McMichael, should not be arrested, “contrary to the laws” of Georgia.
“From my perspective, this is historic,” said an attorney for Arbery’s family, Lee Merritt, who said the criminal charges stand out among many cases he has handled.
“We rarely see — and I’ve never seen — accountability for a prosecutor who interfered in an investigation,” Merritt said.
Johnson, whom voters ousted last fall, could not immediately be reached for comment, and it is not clear if she has a lawyer. She has denied wrongdoing in Arbery’s case.
Violation of oath for a public officer is a felony carrying a sentence of one to five years, while obstructing and hindering a law enforcement officer is a misdemeanor carrying a sentence of up to 12 months, according to the Georgia attorney general’s office, which said it presented evidence to a Glynn County grand jury over multiple months.
The McMichaels and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, are set to face trial on murder charges this fall. They also face federal hate-crime charges, accused of racially profiling Arbery as he jogged through the Satilla Shores neighborhood of coastal Brunswick, Ga. Prosecutors have portrayed the men as vigilantes, and Bryan, who filmed the fatal confrontation on his phone, told investigators that Travis McMichael used the n-word after shooting Arbery, a claim McMichael’s lawyers deny.
The defendants argue they pursued Arbery in the belief he was behind break-ins and acted in self-defense. Video captured Arbery and Travis McMichael struggling before Arbery is shot.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said in an interview Thursday evening that she had “a happy moment for once” when Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr called to tell her about the indictment. “I do think that we will get justice,” she said.
She said she has faith in the authorities now prosecuting the case but emphasized that the tragedy could have easily been buried.
“If the family had not pushed it,” she said, “it would be business as usual.”
Johnson’s office handled Arbery’s case only briefly, but she quickly drew scrutiny — in part for her relationship to the elder McMichael, a former police officer who worked in the Brunswick DA’s office until 2019. Greg McMichael called Johnson from the scene of the shooting and left a voice mail seeking advice: “Could you call me as soon as you possibly can?” he said, according to a recording submitted in court.
Greg McMichael’s phone log for that day did not show a call back from Johnson.
Three days after Arbery’s shooting, Johnson reached out to the state attorney general’s office asking that someone be assigned to advise the police, according to a letter provided by Carr’s office. But Johnson’s office had already brought in Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill to advise police starting the day after Arbery’s death — inappropriately inserting herself into the case, critics said.
Within a day of Arbery’s death, Barnhill had reviewed the evidence, met with police and told them he saw no reason to arrest any of the three men involved.
By April, under pressure from Arbery’s mother, Barnhill wrote that he believed it best to step aside, but still defended the suspects, saying Georgia law protected their right to perform a “citizen’s arrest” and then use deadly force in self-defense after Arbery “initiated the fight.”
Neither Johnson nor Barnhill initially told the attorney general that Barnhill had already stepped in, Carr’s office says, or that Barnhill might have conflicts of his own, because Barnhill’s son worked for Johnson. The attorney general appointed Barnhill.
As the case drew national attention last spring, Carr asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and then the Justice Department to examine potential misconduct by Barnhill and Johnson. Carr said in statement Thursday that “our file is not closed, and we will continue to investigate in order to pursue justice.”
“Our office is committed to ensuring those who are entrusted to serve are carrying out their duties ethically and honestly,” he said.
Barnhill has previously declined to comment on the Arbery case, writing in an email that people must “let the Court and the criminal justice system do their work.”
Mark Spaulding, Johnson’s former office manager in Glynn County, told The Post last year that staff spoke with police but never told them what to do and enlisted Barnhill because police were insistent on getting a prosecutor’s input.
Police have also drawn scrutiny for their handling of the case. Officers did not move to arrest the McMichaels after finding them bloody-handed at the scene of the shooting, according to body-camera footage that captured Arbery gasping for air. The first officer to arrive did not check for a pulse.
“Why would he be in cuffs?” one officer said later of Travis McMichael, according to the footage.
In the body-camera video, the McMichaels and Bryan acknowledged chasing Arbery in their trucks but said they did not intend to kill him. Frank Hogue, an attorney for Gregory McMichael, has called Arbery’s race “incidental” and said the defendants were suspicious after seeing Arbery at an under-construction house and hearing about thefts in the area. Arbery was not found with any stolen items and was not armed, authorities said.
Yet investigators told Arbery’s family that he had been killed during a possible burglary, according to friends and relatives.
“The reason that I go on every day is to get justice for Ahmaud,” Cooper-Jones said Thursday.