Ahmaud Arbery murder raises long-standing issues with Glynn County DA’s handling of cases

For the past five years, we have done some deep reporting in the same place Arbery was murdered. It involves the same players, the same problems and now, growing outrage.

ATLANTA — The Ahmaud Arbery murder case is bringing back some faces and agencies that have been the subject of Channel 2 Action News and Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations over the years that have centered around corruption and misconduct investigations.

For the past five years, we have done some deep reporting in the same place Arbery was murdered. It involves the same players, the same problems and now, growing outrage.

“When I first saw with this case happening in Glynn County, I immediately thought back to other cases where the DA’s office and police department collaborated a little too closely with each other to cover up for some of the officer’s misconduct,” attorney and legal analyst Esther Panitch said.

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“My reaction was simply, ‘Here we go again,’” said attorney Bill Atkins, who represented the family of Caroline Small, an unarmed woman killed by two Glynn County police officers. Much of the evidence in the case was made public by the joint investigation between Channel 2 and the AJC.

Now, two county officials allege Johnson’s office blocked the immediate arrests of her former investigator and his son after Ahmaud Arbery’s killing and before she recused herself from the case.

Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, have admitted to grabbing guns and pursuing Arbery as he jogged in their neighborhood, according to police records.

“After multiple calls back and forth, the investigator was told by her (Johnson’) assistant, a man named Rocky Bridges, that no arrests were to be made,” said Dr. Peter Murphy on Friday.

Murphy is a Glynn County commissioner who told Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr that he went straight to the interim police chief this week, after seeing the viral video of Arbery’s murder.

In a statement to Carr Friday afternoon, Johnson denied the claims her office had impeded arrests, blasted those officials and blamed the former police chief who is facing his own recent indictment for the problems.

“It is unfortunate that Commissioners Murphy and Booker have chosen to make false accusations against District Attorney Jackie Johnson in an attempt to make excuses and ignore the problems at the Glynn County Police Department, for which they are ultimately responsible,” the statement read. “Acting Police Chief Jay Wiggins has indicated that it was a mistake that then Police Chief John Powell did not immediately call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate the death of Ahmaud Arbery.”

“As evidenced by the events of this week, the GBI was able to investigate, make a probable cause determination, and make arrests within two days of receiving the case,” Johnson’s statement continues. “That is what a law enforcement agency does. If the Glynn County Police Department is unable to make a probable cause determination on its own, why do we have a Police Department?”

Misconduct and Corruption Probes

In 2015, our investigation revealed a deal that Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson made with the officers responsible for the 2010 fatal shooting of Caroline Small, an unarmed woman shot through the windshield of her car by two Glynn County police officers.

Four former prosecutors from Johnson's office said she protected those officers.

"It has affected me very deeply in that regard, in that someone was very brutally killed, unnecessarily, and nothing has been done about it," former senior prosecutor Keith Higgins said.

“You would think given their history they would have immediately called in the GBI for any shooting related to law enforcement at this point, whether they’re present or former,” Panitch said, referring to Gregory McMichael’s longtime role in Johnson’s office, and career with the Glynn County Police Department.

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In Small’s case, our investigation found Johnson agreed not to show the grand jury the murder indictment she'd drafted.

Records show she'd already given the officers' attorneys all of the evidence and allowed the officers' department to present a factually inaccurate animation they created showing Small's car escaping through a gap and running over the officers.

A grand jury cleared those officers, but the Channel 2/AJC investigation garnered outrage from the South Georgia community, former Johnson office prosecutors and GBI agents.

After that, there was another incident in 2018, involving Corey Sasser, one of the officers from the Small shooting.

“They then again went out of their way to protect (former officer) Corey Sasser from his own actions instead of protecting two people who were pleading with them to put him behind bars, and what happened? He executed them,” Small's family attorney Bill Atkins said, referring to what happened next.

Sasser murdered his estranged wife and her boyfriend despite a domestic violence probation violation and standoff with police.

He came back to the county he was banned from and made good on a promise to kill before killing himself.

Johnson would then ask the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into whether Sasser had help from law enforcement in tracking down his victims. The GBI found he did.

The guns had been provided by an officer of the Brunswick Police Department. Sasser’s son was charged for aiding his father in the murders.

That brings us to 2020.

Commissioner Murphy blasted both Johnson and neighboring district attorney George Barnhill for not having the McMichael’s locked up.

“So, basically within 24 hours, the Glynn County police were told by two different offices representing district attorneys that no arrests were to be made,” Murphy said.

Johnson’s statement went onto say she’d done her part by contacting the state AG, recusing herself and putting Glynn County police in touch with Barnhill’s office.

Barnhill would recuse himself from the Arbery case, but not before offering an opinion in that recusal letter, that the decision not to arrest the McMichaels was justified by claims of self-defense and citizen’s arrest power.

As far as the Glynn County Police Department was concerned, at the time of Arbery’s murder, it was led by former Chief John Powell. Powell was also in charger during the Sasser murder-suicide case, and facing an indictment with several other officers in a sex scandal involving a narcotics informant.

This is a case Johnson did go after.

“It’s the culture that goes around it about law enforcement sticking up for law enforcement,” Panitch said, adding she believes state lawmakers need to consider the statute that requires police to request their involvement.

“As Shakespeare wrote, ‘There is something rotten in Denmark.’ There’s something rotten down there,” Atkins said.

The south Georgia prosecutors who gathered to review the fatal police shooting of Caroline Small had more than a century of courtroom experience.