Jackie Johnson
Jackie Johnson, who served as Brunswick-area district attorney for 10 years. Both the elder McMichael and the son of Waycross DA Barnhill worked for her.
Greg McMichael during his murder trial at the Glynn County Courthouse, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool)

In the moments after Ahmaud Arbery was shot, one of his killers, Greg McMichael, called his boss, Brunswick-area District Attorney Jackie Johnson asking for help. Over the next two months, the two communicated another 15 times, despite Johnson’s assertion that she had recused herself from the investigation, according to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.

In a court filing Thursday, state prosecutors revealed a plethora of new evidence that they assert shows collusion between Johnson, members of her office and the Waycross district attorney to protect McMichael, his son Travis and their neighbor William “Roddy” Bryant by classifying Arbery’s murder as a justified killing instead of a homicide.

Johnson is facing two criminal charges, one a felony, for allegedly showing favoritism to the older McMichael who worked as her chief investigator but was a suspect in the case that made Brunswick and Glynn County a synonym for America’s racial reckoning. The filing was the state’s response to Johnson’s lawyers calling for the dismissal of those charges last month.

Johnson-McMichael call log
Log of calls between District Attorney Jackie Johnson and Greg McMichael. Credit: Georgia Attorney General

Johnson has pleaded not guilty. Her lawyers have argued that the charges are “wholly specious” and part of “an impermissible, politically motivated ‘hit job’” against her.

Ahmaud Arbery
Ahmaud Arbery

The McMichaels and Bryant killed Arbery while the 25-year-old Black man was jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood on a sunny Sunday afternoon Feb. 23, 2020. Despite Glynn County police and local prosecutors reviewing the stark video evidence of the deadly encounter, it took 74 days and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation taking over the case to secure any arrests. Amid local and statewide outrage, the GBI also looked into Johnson, her office, the neighboring district attorney and county police for evidence of illegal behavior in the way Arbery’s homicide was handled.

Johnson indictment draws controversy

Attorney General Chris Carr indicted Johnson last September for violating her oath of office.  

In the intervening eight months, the McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of murder in state court and of hate crimes in federal court. Johnson, however, has yet to be arraigned. The paucity of evidence presented by Carr’s office against her sparked debate among several prominent retired Georgia prosecutors about to what extent politics were fueling the case against her. 

Johnson, whose father is a notable state Republican donor, served for 10 years as the senior prosecutor for the circuit that covers Camden, Glynn, Appling, Jeff Davis and Wayne counties before the spotlight of the Arbery case changed her political fortunes. She was voted out of office in November 2020.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr
Chris Carr

Carr, meanwhile, is facing a tough primary race on May 24, as is his political ally and boss, Gov. Brian Kemp. Kemp was among the first Georgia politicians to make public statements about the need for justice when the video of Arbery’s killing was made public.

The court filing Thursday fleshes out the Attorney General’s case against Johnson for the first time. It shows a pattern of behind-the-scenes phone calls and communications on the day of and day after Arbery’s murder. Calls flew among Johnson, Greg McMichael, one of her assistant district attorneys and Waycross D.A. George Barnhill. Johnson asked Barnhill, the father of one of her assistant prosecutors, to take over the Arbery investigation.

Johnson has explained that decision as her lawful recusal due to the conflict presented by Gregory McMichael’s involvement in the killing. However, she has never publicly explained how the conflict was resolved given the familial ties of the two Barnhills.

Attorney General shows his case

While the court filing does not spell out the conversations, it alleges that both the timing and extent of phone calls shows that Johnson did not recuse herself as she has asserted, but instead worked directly and via intermediaries to shape the decision not to arrest or charge the McMichaels. Notably among those intermediaries was Barnhill’s son, according to the court documents.

“At no point during this time did District Attorney Jackie Johnson use the lawful conflict procedure,” wrote the state prosecutor. The filing also notes that Johnson correctly followed recusal procedure 25 other times during her tenure, including when her office investigators were witnesses to crimes, making the Arbery killing an outlier.

A specific instance of Johnson intervening to help McMichael came the evening of Arbery’s killing, according to court documents

The older McMichael had left a voicemail message on Johnson’s phone informing her that he and his son had been involved in a shooting. Although he asked for her assistance, Johnson never phoned him back. 

According to the state’s filing, Johnson instead reached out directly to Barnhill, the district attorney whom her office told the Glynn County Police would be taking on the case. She also contacted Barnhill’s son, her own assistant prosecutor.

The two district attorneys spoke for more than 22 minutes on the evening of Feb. 23, just hours after Arbery died. At that point, Glynn County police had interviewed and released the two McMichaels and Bryan, but the police had not spoken to any district attorney about possible charges.

Barnhill told Johnson that he would review and advise the Glynn County police on the case Monday afternoon, Feb. 24.

Johnson allegedly intervenes with GCPD

Johnson again intervened before that happened, according to state prosecutors. She spoke to the police investigator Tom Jump late Monday morning for several minutes, according to court documents. By end of day Monday, DA Barnhill concluded that the shooting was justified, according to the court documents.

At that point, Johnson apparently felt justified talking to the elder McMichael, despite still not contacting the Attorney General’s office, as demanded by law, according to the state. This lack of communication with state prosecutors meant she was still in charge of the case, according to their filing.

“Hours after DA Barnhill had decided that the shooting was justified, Johnson found time to call murder suspect Greg McMichael at 7:39 p.m. instead of the Attorney General’s Office. They talked on the phone for 9 minutes and 15 seconds,” the court documents say. “This all occurs while District Attorney Jackie Johnson is still the presiding District Attorney over the case.”

Tight bonds in prosecutors’ offices

Communication between Johnson, the son of the Waycross district attorney and the McMichaels continued through April, as D.A. Barnhill began having second thoughts about taking on the case due to the negative publicity, according to the court document.

In early May 2020, Greg McMichael decided to leak the video of Arbery’s killing under the mistaken assumption that it would exonerate him and his son. On the day the video went viral, he left a voicemail for Johnson, which appears to suggest that Johnson was providing legal advice to him, according to the court filing.

On May 7, two days later, the GBI arrested both McMichaels on murder charges. Later that month, Bryant was arrested as well.

Margaret Coker is editor-in-chief of The Current GA, based in Coastal Georgia. She started her two-decade career in journalism at Cox Newspapers before going to work at The Wall Street Journal and The...