Attorneys: Ex-prosecutor never hindered Arbery investigators

Ahmaud Arbery-Prosecutor Charged
This jail booking photo provided by Glynn County Sheriff's Office, shows Jackie Johnson, the former district attorney for Georgia's Brunswick Judicial Circuit, after she turned herself in to the Glynn County jail in Brunswick, Ga, on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Lawyers for Johnson asked a judge in a legal filing Wednesday, March 23, 2022, to dismiss a misdemeanor charge that she hindered police investigating the February 2020 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. Johnson’s attorneys say Glynn County police officers told investigators they concluded on their own Arbery was shot in self-defense.(Glynn County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

Attorneys for a former Georgia prosecutor charged with misconduct in the investigation of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing say she never tried to discourage police from making arrests in the shooting of the 25-year-old Black man.

Defense lawyers for Jackie Johnson, who served as district attorney for coastal Glynn County when Arbery was killed there two years ago, filed a legal motion Wednesday asking a judge to dismiss a misdemeanor charge that she hindered police investigating the death.

“There is not a scintilla of evidence that the Honorable former District Attorney Johnson ever knowingly and/ or willfully hindered any Law Enforcement Officer(s) from arresting anyone tied to the murder of Mr. Arbery,” Johnson’s attorneys wrote.

An investigation requested by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr led to Johnson’s indictment last fall on charges that she illegally used her office to protect the white men who chased and killed Arbery. One of them was Greg McMichael, a retired investigator for Johnson’s office who called her soon after the fatal shooting Feb. 23, 2020.

McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood just outside the port city of Brunswick. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery with a shotgun.

No arrests were made until the graphic video leaked online nearly two months later and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. All three men were convicted of murder last fall in a Georgia state court. Last month, they were found guilty of federal hate crimes after a second trial in U.S. District Court.

Johnson blamed her reelection loss in November 2020 on voters outraged by delayed arrests in Arbery’s death. She said she recused herself from the case immediately because Greg McMichael was a former employee.

In their court filing, Johnson’s attorneys cite interviews that Glynn County police officers assigned to Arbery’s killing gave to state and federal investigators, saying they came to their own conclusion that Arbery was shot in self-defense. The officers said they never spoke directly with Johnson, and one of her assistant prosecutors referred them to consult an outside district attorney in a neighboring circuit, George Barnhill.

One of two Glynn County officers Johnson is accused of hindering, Sgt. Stephanie Oliver, told investigators “that no one pressured her to arrest or not arrest anyone in this case,” according to the defense attorneys’ legal motion.

Johnson’s attorneys also said that Glynn County police Capt. Tom Jump told investigators all of his officers assigned to Arbery’s killing “believed that this was a self-defense slaying and thus, no arrest needed to occur.”

Arbery’s family has long blamed Johnson for trying to protect the McMichaels. Evidence in the case includes a voice message Greg McMichael left after calling Johnson’s cellphone the day of the shooting.

“Jackie, this is Greg,” he said on the recording. “Could you call me as soon as you possibly can? My son and I have been involved in a shooting and I need some advice right away.”

A record of Greg McMichael’s cellphone calls, included in the public case file, does not show that Johnson called him back.

In addition to the charge of hindering police, Johnson has been charged with a felony count of violating her oath of office. Her attorneys said they plan to address that count in a later court filing.

Glynn County police officers called to the witness stand in the state and federal trials over Arbery’s death offered very little testimony about their decision not to arrest the McMichaels and Bryan.

Stephan Lowrey, the lead Glynn County investigator in the shooting, testified in November that he hadn’t closed the case when state investigators took it over in May 2020.

“It was still open, but not getting much traction,” Lowrey said.

For a deeper exploration of Ahmaud Arbery’s story, listen to WABE’s podcast, “Buried Truths.” Hosted by journalist, professor, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Hank Klibanoff, season three of “Buried Truths” explores the Arbery murder and its direct ties to racially motivated murders of the past in Georgia.