Crime, Law and Justice

Georgia AG seeks probe of prosecutors in Arbery killing case

Two women comfort each other.
Jasmine Arbery, sister of Ahmaud Arbery (right), and Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud's mother, comfort one another while people gather to honor Ahmaud at Sidney Lanier Park Saturday in Brunswick, Ga.
Sean Rayford | Getty Images

Georgia's attorney general has asked state law officers to investigate allegations of misconduct by local prosecutors in the killing of a black man who was chased by a white father and son, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced Tuesday.

The GBI said Attorney General Chris Carr requested the investigation of how the district attorney offices in Brunswick and Waycross handled the Feb. 23 killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. More than two months passed before the arrests of Gregory and Travis McMichael. They were charged with felony murder and aggravated assault after video of the shooting appeared online and prompted outrage.

"Unfortunately, many questions and concerns have arisen regarding, among other things, the communications between and actions taken by the District Attorneys of the Brunswick and Waycross Circuits. As a result, we have requested the GBI to review in order to determine whether the process was undermined in any way," Carr said in a statement Tuesday.

Carr also appointed a black district attorney from suburban Atlanta on Monday to take over the case, making her the fourth prosecutor in charge of a case that's prompted a national outcry over suspicions that race played a role in delaying arrests.

Carr also has asked federal authorities to investigate how local police and prosecutors handled the case. Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement that Carr has been asked to "forward to federal authorities any information that he has."

Federal prosecutors are also considering hate crimes charges, Kupec said. This would allow for a separate federal case against the gunmen.

Cobb County District Attorney Joyette M. Holmes takes over the case from prosecutor Tom Durden, who the state's attorney general said asked to be replaced by a prosecutor with a large staff as "this case has grown in size and magnitude." Holmes is based in metro Atlanta, more than 300 miles from the coastal Georgia community in Glynn County where the shooting happened.

"District Attorney Holmes is a respected attorney with experience, both as a lawyer and a judge," Carr, a Republican, said in a statement. "And the Cobb County District Attorney's office has the resources, personnel and experience to lead this prosecution and ensure justice is done."

Holmes served four years a magistrate judge in suburban Cobb County before Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her last July to succeed GBI Director Vic Reynolds as district attorney. According to the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys Council, Holmes is one of only seven black district attorneys in the state.

An attorney for Arbery's father, Marcus Arbery, applauded the appointment of a new lead prosecutor.

"In order for justice to be carried out both effectively and appropriately in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, it is imperative that the special prosecutor has no affiliation with the Southeast Georgia legal or law enforcement communities," attorney Benjamin Crump said in a statement. He asked that Holmes "be zealous in her search for justice."

The McMichaels told police they chased Arbrey because they believed he matched the appearance of a burglary suspect caught on surveillance video. Arbery was hit by three shotgun blasts, according to an autopsy report released Monday by the GBI; one shot grazed his right wrist, and the other two struck him in the chest. Blood tests for various drugs and alcohol all came back negative.

Many have expressed frustration with the investigation, questioning whether the arrests took so long because the suspects are white and the victim black. The killing happened in a subdivision just outside Brunswick, a working-class port city of about 16,000 that also serves as a gateway to beach resorts on neighboring islands.

The McMichaels weren't arrested until after the video became public and the GBI was asked to look into the killing. Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, have been jailed since Thursday. Neither man had lawyers at their first court appearances on Friday, done by video link from the Glynn County jail.

With courts largely closed because of the coronavirus, getting an indictment needed to try the men on murder charges will take a while longer still. The soonest a grand jury can convene to hear the case will be mid-June.

Gregory McMichael is a former Glynn County police officer who later worked 20 years as an investigator for the local district attorney's office. He retired a year ago.

Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case because the elder McMichael had worked under her. The first outside prosecutor appointed, District Attorney George Barnhill of the neighboring Waycross Judicial Circuit, stepped aside about a month later because his son works for Johnson as an assistant prosecutor. Durden got the case in mid-April, but the case didn't appear to advance until the emergence of the video.

In his letter to the GBI requesting the probe of the first two prosecutors, Carr said his office was in the dark about actions taken by Barnhill before he was removed from the case. "Unknown and undisclosed to the Attorney General," it says, Barnhill told Glynn County Police that he didn't see grounds for any arrests.

The phone at Barnhill's office in Waycross rang unanswered Tuesday.

Attorneys for Arbery's parents and others, including Carr and the Southern Poverty Law Center, asked for a federal hate crimes investigation, since Georgia has no hate crime law allowing state charges.

At the White House, President Trump said Monday he's following the case "very closely" and that Arbery "looks like a wonderful young guy."

"Certainly the video, it was a terrible looking video to me," Trump said. "But you have a lot of people looking at it and hopefully an answer's going to be arrived at very quickly."

Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, has said she thinks her son, a former high school football player, was just jogging in the neighborhood before he was killed.

The leaked video shows a black man running at a jogging pace. A truck is stopped in the road ahead of him, with one white man standing in the pickup's bed and another beside the open driver's side door.

The running man attempts to pass the pickup on the passenger side, moving briefly outside the camera's view. A gunshot sounds, and the video shows the running man grappling with a man over what appears to be a shotgun or rifle. A second shot can be heard, and the running man can be seen punching the other man. A third shot is fired at point-blank range. The running man staggers a few feet and falls face down.

A man who says he recorded the cellphone video of the shooting said he's received death threats.

William R. Bryan is identified as a witness in the police report taken after Arbery's shooting. He has not been charged.

"I had nothing to do with it," Bryan told WJAX-TV in an interview that aired Monday. "I was told I was a witness and I'm not sure what I am, other than receiving a bunch of threats."

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