Arbery protesters demand Brunswick, Waycross prosecutors resign

Hundreds gathered for a rally outside the Glynn County Courthouse Friday morning, organized by the NAACP to protest the death of Ahmaud Arbery. Two men were charged with his murder Thursday evening. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

Updated May 10 8 p.m. that the McMichaels were denied bond.

BRUNSWICK – Under a warm May sun, hundreds of people gathered at the Glynn County Courthouse to honor the memory of Ahmaud Arbery and call for the resignations of district attorneys who declined to bring charges against Arbery’s alleged killers, Greg and Travis McMichael.

The McMichaels, two white men, are accused of murder and aggravated assault for shooting and killing Arbery as the unarmed black man jogged through the Glynn County Satilla Shores neighborhood in late February.

Georgia NAACP President James “Major” Woodall called Arbery’s death a wake-up call for the country.

“We will continue to fight, we will continue to stand together, we will continue to demand that the district attorney in this judicial circuit resign immediately,” Woodall said. “We will also demand that George Barnhill resign because he said those murderers were justified.”

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson initially recused herself from the case and brought in Barnhill, the district attorney for the Waycross circuit, because Greg McMichael was a former investigator with Johnson’s office and a former officer with the Glynn County Police Department.

Glynn County Commissioner Peter Murphy told news outlets Friday that it was his understanding, from talking with police, that Johnson stopped officers from arresting the McMichaels. Barnhill, before he recused himself at the request of Arbery’s family, said in a letter that it was his legal opinion that the McMichaels were justified in their actions under state law.

Barnhill’s son is an assistant district attorney in Johnson’s office.

State Attorney General Chris Carr named Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden to take over the investigation in April, nearly two months after Arbery’s death. Arbery would have turned 26 today.

The investigation gained urgency Wednesday after a viral video depicting the February confrontation between the gun-wielding McMichaels and the unarmed Arbery. The video sparked a national outcry and Gov. Brian Kemp offered to send the GBI to look into the killing.

Rev. John Perry of the Brunswick NAACP said if Johnson and Barnhill don’t resign, the communities need to vote them out.

“We’ve got to hold every official responsible, accountable, for the fact no arrests were made in the very beginning,” Perry said.

At a Friday press conference, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds detailed what led his investigators to level murder charges against Travis and Greg McMichael in the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds said at a Friday morning news conference detailing the McMichaels’ arrests the night before that the agency should have been invited to enter the case in February.

“In a perfect world, would we have preferred to been asked to become involved in February? Of course,” Reynolds said. “Sometimes it isn’t a perfect world, so we have to deal with the situation that was placed in front of us.”

State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, echoed those thoughts.

“Starting back at the very beginning, District Attorney Jackie Johnson should’ve called them in,” Williams said. “After she passed it on, the next DA, in Waycross, should’ve called them in. It’s absolutely unbelievable how many mistakes were made here. They should’ve been called in immediately.”

He said Johnson and Barnhill “displayed extremely biased, selfish reasoning” behind their actions and that Gov. Brian Kemp should consider removing them both from office.

St. Simons Island Republican state Rep. Jeff Jones attended the GBI news conference and said the arrests were a step in the right direction, but that it was seriously mishandled by Johnson.

“Given the volatility of this, I mean, it got botched from the very beginning in terms of the way the DA handled it,” Jones said.

Reynolds wouldn’t commit to saying more arrests are forthcoming, but said the investigation is not yet over.

“I will tell you that this case is an active, ongoing investigation,” Reynolds said. “In fact, once this press conference breaks today, these agents behind me, the agents in the crowd who are here to observe, will continue their investigation. They are staying in this community, they’re going to continue to work it, they’re going to go wherever the facts take them. If, in fact, the facts take them to make another arrest in this case, they will do that.”

Durden said after the press conference he has new developments in the case that he didn’t feel comfortable disclosing, but that these developments helped him in his decision in advising law enforcement regarding the arrests.

A Glynn County Superior Court Judge denied the McMichaels bond later Friday.

Georgia is one of a handful of states without a hate crimes law, something that almost changed in the 2019 state legislative session but fell short. State Rep. Chuck Efstration, who led the push for the hate crimes bill that year, said Thursday the state Senate should pass a bill as soon as it is able when the Legislature resumes its suspended 2020 session next month.

“Speaker David Ralston made this bipartisan bill a priority in the Georgia House of Representatives last year, and I am calling on the state Senate to pass House Bill 426 as soon as possible,” said Efstration, a Dacula Republican.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat known as the dean of the state House, said because of the circumstances around Arbery’s death, advancing hate crimes legislation will be a priority for him when the House reconvenes.