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First prosecutors in Arbery case scrutinized

by JEFF MARTIN and RUSS BYNUM The Associated Press | May 13, 2020 at 3:14 a.m.
This Thursday, May 7, 2020, file photo combo of images provided by the Glynn County Detention Center in Georgia shows Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael. Georgia's attorney general on Sunday asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the handling of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who authorities say died at the hands of the two men as he ran through a neighborhood. (Glynn County Detention Center via AP, File)

ATLANTA -- The Georgia prosecutors who first handled the fatal shooting of a black man, before charges were filed more than two months later, were placed under investigation Tuesday for their conduct in the case.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced that he asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and federal authorities to investigate how local prosecutors handled the killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was pursued by a white father and son before being shot on a residential street just outside the port city of Brunswick. Arbery's relatives have said he was jogging through the subdivision at the time.

Gregory and Travis McMichael were not charged with murder until last week, after the release of a video of the Feb. 23 shooting.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said federal prosecutors have asked Carr to share any results of the investigation. Federal officials are considering whether hate crimes charges are warranted.

Gregory McMichael told police he and his grown son armed themselves and pursued the young man because they thought he matched the description of a burglary suspect.

Brunswick Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson 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 case.

Johnson said Glynn County police contacted two of her assistant prosecutors on the day of the shooting to seek legal advice. She said her assistants immediately responded that they could not get involved because of the conflict of interest.

Photo by Glynn County (Ga.) Detention Cen
This Thursday, May 7, 2020, file photo combo of images provided by the Glynn County Detention Center in Georgia shows Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael. Georgia's attorney general on Sunday asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the handling of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who authorities say died at the hands of the two men as he ran through a neighborhood. (Glynn County Detention Center via AP, File)

Asked whether anyone in her office 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 self-defense during their call.

"The police represented it as a burglary case with a self-defense issue," Johnson said. Police were seeking "guidance on how to proceed and whether to make an arrest. Our office could not advise or assist them because of our obvious conflict."

Johnson said she reached out to neighboring Waycross Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, asking whether his office could advise Glynn County police. Because it was a fatal shooting, she said, "I didn't want the case to stall."

The attorney general appointed Barnhill to take over Feb. 27, four days after the shooting. But in his letter Monday asking the GBI to investigate possible misconduct by the prosecutors, Carr said he was never told that Barnhill already had 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 April 7, 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 Glynn County police Capt. Tom Jump. County officials released the letter last week.

Johnson said she could not recall whether she had told Carr's office that she 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.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWBahqlrTeU]

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 Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, one of seven black district attorneys in Georgia.

She's 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.

Information for this article was contributed by Kate Brumback of The Associated Press.

A Section on 05/13/2020

Print Headline: First prosecutors in Arbery case scrutinized

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