The local prosecutor who argued two white men were legally justified in chasing down and killing Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, has been at the center of aggressive and flawed prosecutions of at least two black women in recent years.
One of the women was wrongfully imprisoned for over a decade on a murder conviction secured by later discredited forensic evidence, and another woman was unsuccessfully tried twice for helping people vote.
George Barnhill, the district attorney for the Waycross judicial circuit in south-east Georgia, advised police in April that Gregory and Travis McMichael should not be charged over the death of Arbery, suggesting that the two had attempted to “stop and hold this criminal suspect” before fatally shooting him.
Barnhill eventually recused himself from the case, under pressure from the Arbery family, as his son had worked in the Brunswick prosecutor’s office alongside Gregory McMichael.
The McMichaels have since been charged with murder after the emergence of video showing the shooting and the intervention of Georgia state investigators. Barnhill faces harsh scrutiny, allegations of racial bias and a state investigation over his handling of the case and why he recommended not bringing charges shortly before officially recusing himself.
Barnhill defended his office’s handling of the Arbery case.
“As a member of the State Bar of Georgia I am not allowed by State Law and State Bar rules to have any public comment on the facts, or on the law, or on the news stories about the case, to ensure a fair and just trial for all parties,” he said in an emailed statement. “As far as any investigation into my office’s handling of the case; I welcome the investigation and look forward to the review.”
Court documents obtained by the Guardian reveal that just months before Barnhill advised against charging both men, his office aggressively opposed a motion filed on behalf of a 53-year-old African American woman, Sheila Denton, requesting a new trial due to flawed forensic evidence used to convict her of a 2004 murder.
Denton was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for the murder of 73-year-old Eugene Garner, but she has maintained her innocence. Her prosecution, first brought by Barnhill’s predecessor in the district attorney’s office, relied heavily on “bite mark” evidence and the account of a sole witness who defense lawyers said gave conflicting evidence and was heavily pressured by local police into testifying against Denton. Court filings indicate police threatened the witness, Sharon Jones, with being charged over murder herself unless she testified that Denton had confessed to her. Jones was a known crack cocaine dealer and drug addict.
An autopsy on Garner’s body identified a potential bite mark, which was used alongside a photograph of Denton’s arm, which prosecutors argued also showed an alleged bite mark, to deduce Denton had carried out the murder. There was no DNA evidence linking her to the case.
Although forensic dentistry experts testified at trial that the markings were “probable bite marks” that linked the two together, guidance issued by the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) in 2016, which strictly limited testimony on “probabilistic” bite markings, essentially nullified the critical evidence from the 2006 trial.
Despite this, attorneys working for Barnhill argued in court filings in December 2019 that the new ABFO guidance was “not evidence at all” and the court should continue to rely on the old, flawed testimony because the forensic dentist who testified in 2006 “would not change the opinion he offered”. The motion was written by the assistant district attorney Michelle McIntire, who reports to Barnhill.
Ultimately, on 7 February this year, just two weeks before the Arbery shooting, Judge Dwayne Gillis disagreed with Barnhill’s office and allowed Denton a new trial, later ordering her release from prison.
Denton was released on 9 April but remains under indictment.
Sources close to the case told the Guardian that Barnhill indicated, at around the same time he advised against charging the McMichaels, that he would continue to examine pursuing a new case against Denton.
Barnhill said in an email that the original trial was “many years ago” and he was not personally involved. He said his office had agreed to a low bond for Denton after a new trial was ordered so she could live with family in Atlanta.
In recent years Barnhill also drew national attention for his decision to prosecute Olivia Pearson, the first African American woman elected to the city commission in Douglas, Georgia, and three others for improperly assisting others at the polls during the 2012 general election. The three other people pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, but Pearson chose to take her case to trial.
Georgia restricts who can get assistance at the polls and Barnhill’s office brought felony charges against Pearson, saying she had unlawfully helped her nephew and another woman at the polls and signed a form swearing that the voters met the necessary conditions for assistance when they didn’t.
But during the trial, one of the women Pearson helped, a first-time voter, testified that she didn’t know how to use the voting machine, according to BuzzFeed News. She said Pearson showed her how to do so without touching the machine or telling her how to vote.
“I was just blown away that I got indicted on something like that,” said Pearson “They aggressively prosecuted me.”
All but one of the jurors, a black woman, voted to convict Pearson, resulting in a mistrial. Barnhill’s office immediately moved to try the case again. In the second trial, held in another town, the jury acquitted Pearson after just 20 minutes of deliberation.
The fact that the group was prosecuted after encouraging people to vote was stunning, said Charlene Green, an attorney who represented one of the men who pleaded guilty. Many saw the prosecutions as an attempt to intimidate minority voters.
“These are not people who are a blight on the community. These are individuals who are actively working to galvanize marginalized people in that community,” she said.
Some noted it was alarming that Barnhill so aggressively brought prosecutions for minuscule voting infractions but didn’t think charges were warranted in Arbery’s case, where there was video evidence showing two men chasing down an unarmed man and shooting him.
“When you look at the fact pattern that has come to light in Mr Arbery’s case, that this same DA looked at that video and decided that there was no probable cause to prosecute, it says to me that his judgment is informed by race discrimination,” said Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represented Pearson in her second trial.
Barnhill said he did not have an active role in either of Pearson’s trials and that if people asked him about the case, he would tell them Pearson was not guilty.
“I have a 36-year prosecution history which is open for inspection. I’m proud of the work I’ve done,” he said.
Barnhill has spent almost his entire career as a prosecutor in the Waycross judicial circuit, a jurisdiction situated across six counties in rural south-east Georgia. According to biographies in local news, he began tenure as an assistant district attorney in June 1983, rising to chief assistant district attorney in 1994.
Archives indicate that Barnhill has been a mainstay on the local Republican political scene for many years. He was elected to district attorney in 2014 in a close and, at times, bitterly fought battle with a second Republican candidate, Brad Collins.
Local news reports from the time indicate that Barnhill campaigned on a harsh, tough-on-crime agenda and touted his active support of capital punishment. According to one story in the Waycross Journal-Herald, he also once blamed “high numbers of pirates and unfriendly Indians” from Georgia’s colonial past for the state’s “criminal element”.