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First two DAs in Arbery case forced to recuse themselves before 3rd DA moved forward

Despite recusing himself, Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill said that in his professional opinion, there was no grounds to arrest Greg or Travis McMichael.

GLYNN COUNTY, Ga. — In the days following the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23, Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson quickly recused her office from the case.

"The investigation involves Greg McMichael, a former investigator with my office," Johnson said in a letter to the state attorney general's office in Atlanta. "I am requesting the Attorney General to assign counsel to advise the police in the above-referenced matter, as I am recusing my office."

Johnson's letter came four days after Arbery's death. No arrest had taken place.

According to a Glynn County commissioner, Dr. J. Peter Murphy, Glynn County Police had contacted Johnson's office within days of Arbery's death. 

Murphy said the police were told by "representatives of the DA's office," but not by Johnson herself, to not make arrests in the case. 

On May 8, Murphy told 11Alive he wanted to make it clear that the lack of an arrest was not due to the inaction on the part of the Glynn County Police Department, but due to a directive from the DA's office.

The case was assigned to the Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill.

In a letter to Glynn County Police Captain Tom Jump, Barnhill said that Arbery's mother had clearly expressed a desire for Barnhill's office to be removed from the case.

"She sees a conflict in that my son works in the Brunswick District Attorney's Office where Greg McMichael retired some time ago," Barnhill said. "She believes there are kinships between the parties [there are not] and has made other unfounded allegations of bias[es]."

Barnhill went on to say that he would recuse himself from the case and request the assistance of the Georgia Attorney General's office in finding another district attorney to "handle the further 'evaluation for prosecution' in this case."

"I appreciate there is immediate pressure on your department as to arrive as to the issue of 'Arrest,'" Barnhill said. "Since I have already given you an initial opinion the day after the shooting, I feel I can still comment on this limited issue."

His office began to review the autopsy report and additional evidence -- including the video of the shooting -- before presenting his finding in April indicating that there were no grounds to arrest either of the McMichaels. 

Barnhill identified a third person in his letter, alternately as Bryan William or William Bryan. This third individual is noted as also being in pursuit of Arbery, and the person who took the video which has been now been seen on social media by millions of people.

RELATED: Video of Ahmaud Arbery's death was released by the lawyer for the men who killed him, attorney claims

"It is my professional belief the autopsy confirms what we had already viewed as shown in the video tape, with the photographs & from the witness statements taken immediately at the scene," Barnhill said. "We do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties."

Barnhill goes on to give a running commentary of the video, which suggested that Arbery initiated the attack on Travis McMichael.

"At the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun, under Georgia Law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself," Barnhill said.

RELATED: 'A posse in a modern-day lynching': Attorney in Trayvon Martin shooting joins Ahmaud Arbery case

Barnhill concluded his narrative by postulating Arbery's mental health and prior arrest history. 

"Arbery's mental health records & prior convictions help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man," Barnhill said.

In a subsequent press release, dated May 5, Tom Durden, District Attorney with the Atlantic Judicial Circuit in Hinesville, said he received a phone call from the Attorney General's office informing him of the case on April 13.

"After a careful review of the evidence presented and after exchanging information with the Glynn County Police Department, the FBI, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, and the Prosecuting Attorney's Council of Georgia, I am of the opinion that the case should be presented to the grand jury of Glynn County for consideration of criminal charges against those involved in the death of Mr. Arbery," Durden said.

At the same point, Durden requested the GBI investigate Arbery's death, which led to the arrest of Gregory and Travis McMichael on Thursday evening, May 8, 2020.

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