Ahmaud Arbery: prosecutors under investigation over handling of killing

By Guardian staff and agencies

The Georgia prosecutors who first handled the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery before charges were filed more than two months later have been placed under investigation for their conduct in the case, which has prompted a national outcry.

Georgia’s attorney general, Chris Carr, announced that he had asked the Georgia bureau of investigation (GBI) and federal authorities to investigate how local prosecutors handled the killing of 25-year-old Arbery, who was pursued by a white father and son before being shot on a residential street on 23 February just outside the port city of Brunswick. Arbery’s relatives have said he was jogging at the time.

Gregory and Travis McMichael were not charged with murder until last week, after the release of a graphic video of the killing. Gregory McMichael had told police he and his adult son armed themselves and pursued the young man because they thought he matched the description of a burglary suspect, and he alleged that Arbery had attacked his son before the shots were fired.

“Unfortunately, many questions and concerns have arisen” about the actions of the district attorneys, Carr said on Tuesday in a statement. As a result, the attorney general asked the GBI to review the matter “to determine whether the process was undermined in any way”.

A US justice department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said federal prosecutors had asked Carr to share any results. Federal officials are also considering whether hate crime charges are warranted.

The Brunswick circuit district attorney, Jackie Johnson, was the first to recuse her office from the case. She defended her office’s involvement, which she insisted was minimal, because the elder McMichael worked for her as an investigator before retiring a year ago. That relationship required the office to step away from the investigation.

“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 on Tuesday.

Asked if anyone in her office had 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 Georgia’s self-defense laws during their call.

Johnson said she reached out to the 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.”

Georgia’s attorney general ended up appointing Barnhill to take over on 27 February, four days after the shooting. But 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”.

Weeks after Carr appointed him to the case, and just a few days before recusing himself on 7 April over a conflict of interest, Barnhill wrote that the McMichaels “were following, in ‘hot pursuit’, a burglary suspect, with solid first-hand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/telling him to stop.

“It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia law this is perfectly legal,” Barnhill advised in the undated letter to Tom Jump, a Glynn county police captain. County officials released the letter last week.

Johnson said she could not recall if she had told Carr’s office that she had 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 district attorney in nearby Hinesville, next took the case and had it for more than three weeks before the video became public and he called in the GBI. On Monday, Carr replaced him with the Cobb county district attorney, Joyette M Holmes, one of only seven black district attorneys in Georgia.

She is based in Atlanta, far from the coastal community where the shooting happened, and is “a respected attorney with experience, both as a lawyer and a judge”, said Carr, a Republican.

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. All three shots can be heard on the video, which clearly shows the final shot hitting Arbery at point-blank range before he staggers and falls face down.

Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, have been jailed since Thursday. Neither had lawyers at their first court appearances. With courts largely closed because of the coronavirus, a grand jury cannot be called to hear the case until mid-June.