Atlantans ride to Brunswick to amplify demand DAs quit over Arbery killing

By: - May 17, 2020 8:12 am

Francys Johnson of the New Georgia Project rallies hundreds gathered at the Glynn County Courthouse to call for the jobs of the district attorneys who declined to press charges in the February Ahmaud Arbery slaying. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

BRUNSWICK – A caravan from Atlanta to the Glynn County Courthouse steps amplified calls that two southeast Georgia district attorneys leave office or be pushed out.

The “Justice for Ahmaud Caravan” brought more attention to local calls for district attorneys Jackie Johnson and George Barnhill to either resign or be removed from office.

Why did Minister Connie Moran make the four-hour trip from her Sankofa United Church of Christ in Atlanta to the Glynn County Courthouse Saturday? She gestured toward one of her sons, who was standing with her.

“I have three sons, and I’m originally from Chicago, but I know when he goes out ⁠— he’s an athlete, all my boys are athletes ⁠— when they go out and jog, and they go out and participate in what should be a normal occurrence, I expect them to come home,” Moran said. “So, anything that I can do to make sure every mother in America doesn’t have to get a phone call like that, I’ll do.”

Glynn County Commissioner Peter Murphy said Johnson’s Brunswick Judicial District office told police not to arrest Greg McMichaels, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, after the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in late February. Johnson disputes Murphy’s account.

Because of Greg McMichael’s work with her office as an investigator, Johnson recused herself, and Barnhill, of the Waycross Judicial Circuit, stepped in. He later recused himself because Arbery’s family complained that he was too close to the case since his son works in Johnson’s office. Before stepping aside, Barnhill, wrote a letter that said the McMichaels shouldn’t be charged and Arbery’s death should be considered a justifiable homicide.

Only after a third district attorney took over after Barnhill’s recusal, and a video of the killing went viral May 6, did authorities arrest the McMichaels. Attorney General Chris Carr last week appointed a fourth district attorney, Joyette Holmes of the Cobb Judicial Circuit, to lead the investigation.

Protesters at the courthouse Saturday called for the first two prosecutors who declined to bring charges in Arbery’s slaying despite having seen the video evidence to lose their jobs. 

Marcus Coleman, founder of the Atlanta-based social justice organization Save OurSelves, said the “good ol’ boy, backwoods” system in Glynn County needs dismantling, and the first move should be removing Johnson as DA.

“When you get a district attorney that not only covers up an arrest or prevents an arrest, when you get a district attorney who puts out a statement saying that this incident was an embarrassing mistake,” Coleman said. “The death of Ahmaud Arbery to her and her office was an embarrassing mistake. She’s got to go.”

Coleman said Barnhill needs to leave office because he mishandled the case, including his letter absolving the McMichaels.

Coleman said the key player he described as “the pistol-cocking videographer” needs to be arrested now. William “Roddie” Bryan recently came forward and ⁠— while represented by Brunswick defense attorney Kevin Gough ⁠— admitted he took the video that showed the killing of Arbery.

Coleman said he understands that Gough said Bryan was unarmed, “but let me ask you a question ⁠— did you see the video? Did you hear the video? Did you hear the cocking of the gun in the video? That third individual, the videographer, the chilling silence when he was recording the murder, the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. Say he got to go.”

A new mural of Ahmaud Arbery by Marvin Weeks greeted people arriving by caravan from Atlanta Saturday to protest the lack of arrests in months following the February slaying of the unarmed black jogger. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

Rashad Richey, a political commentator and radio talk show host on Atlanta’s WAOK-FM, said that while we’ve been told justice is blind, that’s not true ⁠— Lady Justice is simply blindfolded.

“Which means, at any time Lady Justice can peek from under the blindfold, and it’s happened in this case in Brunswick, Ga.,” Richey said. “And the one who was peeking from that blindfold was the district attorney, Jackie Johnson. And then that DA decided to hand the case off over to her friend, who wrote a letter in support of those who have been charged in the murder. I echo the words of my dear brother Marcus Coleman, they got to go.”

Glynn County leaders joined the visitors from Atlanta to speak of the checkered local history of law and order. Rev. John Perry of the Brunswick NAACP said locals share some amount of guilt for the way the Arbery case is bringing a harsh spotlight on this port city of 16,000.

“We will not be on trial for the bullets shot, but we are on trial for every moment we heard of corruption, but since it did not affect us, we turned our head to it,” Perry said. “We’re on trial because there were other incidents long before this that should’ve caused us to wake from our sleep and our slumber, but we kept on operating business as usual. But today, this declares the awakening.”

Perry said both law enforcement and prosecutors should be held accountable for the injustice that so much time lagged before the McMichaels’ arrest. And, he said, while he can’t speak to what was in the mind of the McMichaels or the people who first handled the investigation, they were given an undeserved benefit of the doubt.

“Those that arrived on the scene, because of a relationship, at least took their word instead of doing a thorough investigation, and then, worse, because of a relationship of privilege, there was some in their office that chose to help them cover up this incident,” Perry said. “So, justice is not just trying the McMichaels, justice is also saying that we’ve got to clean up the house of Glynn County.”

Both McMichaels are charged with murder and aggravated assault and are held by the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office after they were denied initial requests for bond. Lawyers for both men said Friday they expect evidence beyond the video that is public so far to show their clients are innocent of the murder charges.

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Wes Wolfe
Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Brunswick, where he recently wrapped up more than three years with The Brunswick News.