George Barnhill, the second district attorney to handle the murder case of Ahmaud Arbery, quietly decided not to run for re-election. Shortly after New Year’s and just before the sentencing of the three men found guilty of murder, an assistant district attorney in the Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office announced he would be running for the seat.
While much of the attention of the mishandling of the Arbery murder case has rested on former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, Barnhill had his hands deep in delaying the arrest of Arbery’s killers. He was involved in the case, consulting with Johnson and local police, for a few days before being officially appointed to take over. From available information, neither he nor Johnson revealed his initial involvement when she reached out for a replacement.
Before he finally recused himself from the case, Barnhill wrote a letter claiming the evidence supported the actions of the McMichaels. It’s a rare example of a prosecutor working overtime to exonerate men who killed someone in cold blood.
As previously reported by NewsOne, Barnhill exploited the prior version of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law claiming that the McMichaels actions were legal because they were in “hot pursuit” of Arbery, who was caught committing a crime. Except Arbery was not committing a crime. And even if he were, a plain reading of the prior citizen’s arrest law did not justify the McMichaels actions.
But Barnhill went further to twist the laws of open-carry and self-defense as if being able to carry a weapon automatically gave them the right to take the life of another. He explained his decision not to prosecute was based on his decades of experience.
Part of that experience includes harassing a Black woman with prosecution for unfounded claims of felony voter fraud. As Mother Jones reported in May 2020, Barnhill’s office prosecuted Olivia Pearson, a Black grandmother and civil rights activist, for helping someone unfamiliar with using an electronic voting machine.
Despite no allegation that Pearson helped the person cast their vote or otherwise influenced their decision, Barnhill threatened Pearson with 15 years in jail. The overzealous prosecution caught voting rights advocates and lawyers by surprise. Somehow, he never managed to have that same energy for Arbery’s killers.
According to an announcement in the Douglas Now, Ian Sansot is running to replace Barnhill. He encouraged voters to vote for him in the upcoming Republican primary. Sansot participated in the Pearson trial, previously telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2018, “I’ve got my job to do, and I did it, and that’s all there is to it for me.”
James Woodall, a policy associate with the Southern Center for Human Rights and founding member of the Just Georgia coalition, told NewsOne that he expects the legal system to hold Barnhill accountable.
“He is not above the law and should be held to the same standard as every other citizen in this great state,” Woodall said. “Jackie Johnson lost her election and still was indicated by a grand jury on behalf of Attorney General Chris Carr.”
While Just Georgia helped amplify demands for action regarding Arbery’s murder, the group has consistently called for legal reforms to address prosecutorial misconduct. Woodall stressed the need for accountability for Barnhill’s actions.
“George Barnhill justified in his official capacity, the vicious and racist murder of Ahmaud Arbery in cold blood and used the letter of the law to do so,” Woodall said. “His assessment of the facts, in that case, was not only wrong but was so erroneous that they are to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. And his assessment as a lawyer and a prosecutor in this state differs so greatly from that jury verdict he should no longer be able to practice law in this state.”