Barnhill headshot

DOJ investigates Waycross DA’s handling of Ahmaud Arbery case

Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George E. Barnhill is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for his handling of the shooting death case of Ahmaud Arbery of Glynn County.

Barnhill is the district attorney for the six-county Waycross Judicial Circuit, which includes Pierce County.

Barnhill says he welcomes the investigation.

“As to any review or investigation into my office, I welcome the investigation and I already have reached out to the local Georgia Bureau of Investigation office to tell them we will cooperate and provide any documents, text logs, phone calls, emails, timelines and other information they need,”  Barnhill said.   

Barnhill declined additional comment citing the pending investigation.

The Arbery case has generated extensive national media coverage following the release two weeks ago of a video that shows Arbery’s shooting death Feb. 23.

Arbery was reportedly running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood on that Sunday afternoon when Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, 34,  chased him down, reportedly suspecting him of a burglary in the neighborhood. A confrontation ensued and Travis McMichael reportedly fired his shotgun three times, killing Arbery.

Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and investigator, had recently retired from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office.

Jackie Johnson, District Attorney for the Brunswick circuit, recused herself Feb. 27 due to the potential conflict of interest and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr assigned the case to Barnhill.

Barnhill recused himself April 7 after revelations of a potential conflict of interest since his son, George F. Barnhill, is an assistant district attorney in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit’s DA office. The younger Barnhill had reportedly prosecuted an earlier case in which Arbery brought a loaded weapon to a high school basketball game in 2012. G. McMichael reportedly also assisted with that case.

Additional developments revealed Johnson reportedly consulted with Barnhill the day after Arbery’s death to advise Glynn County Police on probable cause questions to determine whether the McMichael’s should be arrested.

Despite the fact he later recused himself, Barnhill issued a letter offering his opinion that the McMichaels were carrying their weapons legally in the process of a citizen’s arrest which ended in deadly self-defense. In that letter, Barnhill said charges were not warranted against the McMichaels in the shooting death.

Attorney General Carr said he was unaware of any of those potential conflicts at the time Barnhill was assigned the case.

Carr later reassigned the case to Tom Durden, district attorney for the Atlantic Judicial district, based in Hinesville, which borders the Brunswick district to the north.

Durden called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate the case. The GBI determined there was probable cause and both McMichaels were arrested and charged with murder May 7. The two remain in the Glynn County Detention Center without bond, each charged with felony murder and aggravated assault.

The case was later, yet again, reassigned, this time to the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office. Durden asked that the case be reassigned to an office with the resources to handle it.

The U.S. Department of Justice has been summoned to investigate the issues and communications between district attorneys and police.

Carr formally asked the U.S. attorney with the Southern District of Georgia, Bobby Christine, to oversee the investigation into Barnhill and Johnson’s handling of the case. The investigation will focus primarily on communications between the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office and the Waycross District Attorney’s Office following Arbery’s death.

The DOJ’s investigation also will delve into communication Barnhill had with Glynn County police prior to his assignment to the case by the attorney general.

“The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia have been supporting and will continue fully to support and participate in the investigation,” DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.

“We are committed to a complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset,” Carr said. “The family, the community and the state of Georgia deserve answers, and we will work with others in law enforcement at the state and federal level to find those answers.”

Johnson said her office welcomes the DOJ investigation. “We are confident that the true facts will come out in the investigation,” her statement read. “Our obligation has been, and will always be, to honor, protect, and abide by the law.”

Larry Hobbs of The Brunswick News contributed to this report.