UPDATED: 2:40 p.m. ET, Nov. 24
Originally published: Sept. 8
Wednesday’s long-awaited guilty verdict for the three white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery drew attention to what would come next in the still-unfinished saga stemming from the modern-day lynching of a Black man who was out jogging on that fateful day in Brunswick, Georgia, last year.
But what about George Barnhill, the Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney who took over the case last year after then-Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself because Gregory McMichael was an investigator in her office until he retired in 2019. Johnson was indicted in September for allegedly showing “favor and affection” toward Gregory McMichael and interfering with police officers by “directing that Travis McMichael should not be placed under arrest.”
A conflict of interest
But Barnhill — who had a similar conflict of interest that he kept concealed — immediately defended Johnson’s decision against criminally charging McMichael and his son, Travis, who, along with William “Roddie” Bryan, were recorded on video trapping the 21-year-old Black man with their vehicles before shooting him dead in the street as he was out for a routine jog in the town of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Without hesitation, Barnhill decided that Arbery was a “criminal suspect” whose shooting was “perfectly legal” in Georgia.
“It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and (William Bryan) were following, in ‘hot pursuit,’ a burglary suspect, with solid firsthand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/telling him to stop,” Barnhill wrote in a letter sent to Brunswick authorities. “It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia law, this is perfectly legal.”
But after it was revealed that Barnhill’s son worked in Johnson’s office alongside Gregory McMichael, calls grew for him to recuse himself, including an online petition demanding he be disbarred that garnered more than 1 million signatures. Barnhill ultimately recused himself, suggesting in a letter to Captain Tom Jump of the Glynn County Police Department that he still doubted whether there was “sufficient evidence on which to make a Grand Jury presentation.”
(For perspective’s sake, Bryan told investigators that Travis McMichael called Arbery a “f**king ni**er” after shooting the jogger three times at close range with a shotgun. The McMichaels were finally arrested and charged with murder more than two months after Arbery was killed. Bryan met the same fate two weeks later. Testimony from a bond hearing confirmed the three suspects frequently exchanged text messages replete with racist slurs. Citing phone records, a judge said Bryan also used the N-word and other racial slurs frequently. Jail phone records also revealed Gregory McMichael downplayed the broad day killing as a virtue and not an immoral act, asking, “You’ve heard the saying that no good deed goes unpunished?”)
Georgia AG investigating
As a result, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr in May of last year opened up an investigation into the handling of Arbery’s case. Without calling Barnhill by his name, Carr referenced “the conduct of the District Attorneys of the Brunswick and Waycross Judicial Circuits.”
Carr said that “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.”
Jackie Johnson indicted
Fast-forward to last week and a grand jury returned an indictment against Johnson for one felony count of violating her oath of office and one misdemeanor count of hindering a law enforcement officer. Johnson was arrested on Wednesday.
During a press conference last week after Johnson was indicted, attorneys representing Arbery’s mother suggested that Barnhill could be next.
Is George Barnhill next?
Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt said there was not “a concrete timeline” for Barnhill to possibly be indicted. However, he explained that he saw criminal charges “as the next step in accountability” as the investigation continues.
“George Barnhill withheld material information,” Merritt said before adding later that the Waycross DA “began to advise [Johnson] about ways her friend and former employee [McMichael] could avoid accountability.”
Merritt, a candidate for attorney general in Texas, said Barnhill “accepted the responsibility of taking over the investigation knowing he had a dog in the fight.”
Merritt said the door for Barnhill to still be indicted was still open “as long as the grand jury’s convened,” which he said means there’s still a chance he could be charged.
Merritt said he had filed a parallel civil suit against Barnhill and Johnson and that Carr has been consulting with his office about that lawsuit, suggesting that the AG’s investigation is far from over.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who also represents Arbery’s family, echoed Merritt’s sentiments at the press conference on Friday.
“It seems to lend itself to some conspiracy between Jackie Johnson and George Barnhill and that is something that had to be answered,” Crump said.
He said that was important because “far too often DAs have put their fingers on the scales of justice where you have Black victims killed by white hands.”
Crump said he was looking to set a precedent for prosecutors to be held accountable.
“We look forward to making sure that Barnhill is also investigated thoroughly and we have justice for this family on all levels,” Crump said.
DA Mark Jones indicted
Unrelated to Arbery’s case, Chattahoochee Circuit District Attorney Mark Jones was indicted on Tuesday for trying to influence a police officer’s testimony, offering bribes to prosecutors in his office and trying to influence and prevent the testimony of a crime victim.
Jones’ indictment suggested that Georgia authorities were taking Crump’s demands for prosecutorial accountability seriously.
There is one former Georgia district attorney who was involved in the Arbery case and has managed to avoid any criminal scrutiny. Joyette Holmes, a Black woman Republican who is the former district attorney in Cobb County and former judge who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to take over prosecuting the case, was one of five district attorneys in Georgia to lose their bids for re-election last year. In July, Kemp appointed Holmes to the Georgia State Board for the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The trial for Arbery’s murder is scheduled to begin next month in Glynn County, which has recently seen a surge of COVID-19 infections, which could potentially delay the court case.