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Criminal Justice

Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers Are in Prison. The Person Accused of Protecting Them Is Now in Court.

Former District Attorney Jacquelyn Johnson’s intervention led to a 74-day delay in the arrests of Arbery’s killers, prosecutors say.

A demonstrator holds a sign at the Glynn County Courthouse during the 2021 trial of Gregory and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan for the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. Former Brunswick District Attorney Jacquelyn Lee Johnson is scheduled to appear in court Dec. 29 on charges that include violating her oath of office. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Jacquelyn Lee Johnson, the former district attorney accused of unethically meddling in the investigation of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in 2020, was expected to face a judge this week for arraignment on a felony charge of violating her oath of office. But the hearing in the long-awaited case has been delayed at her attorney’s request, according to court records. A new date wasn’t listed.

More than two years after a trio of white vigilantes stalked, ambushed, and killed the 25-year-old Black man on a residential street of Brunswick, Georgia, Johnson has become a rare elected chief prosecutor to be indicted on the charge. She allegedly told police not to arrest the men who killed Arbery, allowing them to go free for 74 days before state investigators took over the case. She’s also facing a misdemeanor count of obstruction and hindering a law enforcement officer.

Johnson, who lost her reelection bid in 2020, faces up to five years in prison on the oath of office violation and up to a year in jail on the obstruction charge, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. 

If the case goes to trial, it could provide an unusual level of accountability for a high-level public law enforcement official. Prosecutors directly involved in trying cases have been investigated for withholding evidence and other misconduct, said Tony Thedford, a Chicago-based criminal defense and civil rights attorney. Such investigations can lead to sanctions or disbarment, depending on the level of egregiousness.  

But Johnson’s trial is unlikely to result in a new level of scrutiny for the more than 2,300 elected prosecutors across the country.

“We’ve seen this when a police department is exposed for how they treated folk of color. Someone’s prosecuted and they blame that one person for being the one bad apple, and the department takes no responsibility,” said Thedford, a board member with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “They continue to do things the way they did before, except, they do a better job at hiding those choices. So, I don’t expect to see change.”

Video of Arbery’s February 2020 murder leaked three months after his death at the height of the pandemic, sparking protests nationwide. His last 28 seconds alive were captured on the cellphone of William “Roddie” Bryan — one of the convicted murderers — and circulated on social media in early May 2020, three weeks before video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers was posted. 

Days after Bryan’s smoking gun evidence went viral, Gregory and Travis McMichael were charged with murder, as was Bryan soon after. Travis McMichael, armed with a shotgun, pulled the trigger, striking Arbery, who was unarmed. The men told police they believed Arbery was a burglary suspect and that they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest under a law that dates to the 1860s. Juries convicted them of murder and federal hate crime charges. The McMichaels were sentenced in state court to life in prison without the possibility of parole; Bryan also received life, but has the possibility of parole. 

But there was no accountability for the weeks-long delay in their arrests until September 2021, when a Glynn County grand jury indicted Johnson for allegedly “showing favor and affection” toward Gregory McMichael, who is a retired investigator with her office and a former Glynn County police officer, according to the indictment

Johnson recused herself from the Arbery investigation to avoid a conflict of interest, but in the same breath, Johnson recommended that Attorney General Chris Carr hand over the case to Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill, with whom she had already discussed the case, according to the indictment.

Barnhill recommended that no charges be filed against the McMichaels or Bryan, saying the shooting was in self-defense. 

Johnson’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the indictment in March, saying that the charges against her are a “complete and utter fabrication of reality.” Capital B has reached out to Johnson’s defense attorney, Brian Steel, for further comment, but did not receive a response. 

Carr, the attorney general, said in a statement that his office continues to investigate how the case was handled. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit against the convicted killers, Barnhill, Johnson, and others.

In Johnson’s case, proving that her intentions were more than just bad judgment could be a challenge for prosecutors, said LeRoy Pernell, a law professor at Florida A&M University. 

Regardless of the verdict, Thedford says he doesn’t believe that Johnson “has a chance in hell, even at a minimum, restoring her reputation. She’s done in the field.”