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DA offices at center of 'prosecutorial misconduct' probe: Here's how they handled the Arbery case

An 11Alive investigation looks into how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled and why there is now a state and federal investigation.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Just two days after Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr was tagged in a Facebook post showing the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, suspects Gregory and Travis Michael were arrested.

“[I] was stunned and shocked by it,” Attorney General Carr told 11Alive Tuesday morning. “Thankful the video was released so that we could see with our own eyes. I'm a father, I'm a fellow human being and when I saw that, I, too, was shocked and I was sick.”

Carr said despite claims on social media and the fact that his office has been aware of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting since April 7, he had not seen the video until the world saw it.

“Our office did not see the case file. We've never seen evidence. Our role was to appoint conflict counsel, which we did,” Carr explained.

The conflict of interest is now at the center of two investigations into prosecutorial misconduct.

RELATED: Cobb County DA selected as lead prosecutor in Ahmaud Arbery case

On May 10, Carr asked the U.S Department of Justice to look into how the case was handled – including, but not limited to, investigation of the communications and discussions by and between the Office of the District Attorney of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit and the Office of the District Attorney of the Waycross Judicial Circuit related to the Arbery case, a news release said.

Two days later, on May 12, Carr asked the GBI to also conduct a concurrent investigation into prosecutorial misconduct.

“There could be federal law that's implicated on the one hand, and there could be state law that's implicated on the other. And, in order for us to determine all of the facts and in order for justice to be done, we need to come at this case from all angles and make sure we know what the facts are,” Carr said. 

"From our perspective, based on the communications that we've received, based on the questions that have been raised by others in the community, based on even concerns that have been raised at the national level through the National District Attorneys Association, I feel that we absolutely must get to the bottom of this, we must ask questions as it relates to this issue as well as others," he added.

Just hours after Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed on February 23, public documents reviewed by The Reveal, 11Alive's investigative team, show the Glynn County Police Department called the Office of the District Attorney of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit for advice on how to handle the case. 

The officers had realized one of the suspects, Gregory McMichael, was a former police officer who worked in their department and they wanted an outside opinion on the case.

The Reveal has learned, it's the same DA’s office where suspect Gregory McMichael also worked as an investigator until May 2019.

RELATED: A look at Gregory McMichael's police officer personnel file

Credit: Glynn County Sherrif's Office
Travis McMichael, 34, (left) and Gregory McMichael, 64 (right) were booked into the Glynn County Jail and charged with the murder of Ahamaud Arbery.

Instead of notifying the attorney general of their conflict in the Brunswick DA’s office, it was determined the McMichaels were not a flight risk. The Brunswick DA’s office advised officers that no arrests were necessary at the time, the Glynn County Police Department confirmed in a May 9 news release.

The Brunswick DA’s office also called the Waycross DA George Barnhill to intervene.

The day after the February 24 shooting, Barnhill echoed the Brunswick DA’s advice, telling police the shooting was “justifiable” and there was "no cause for arresting the McMichaels and William 'Roddy' Bryan", the man who recorded the video of the shooting. 

It wasn’t until February 27, four days after the shooting, that the Brunswick DA’s office officially requested a new prosecutor on the case. Barnhill was appointed to take over.

The attorney general’s office said neither the Brunswick DA’s office nor the Waycross DA’s office disclosed Barnhill had already been making decisions in the case or that he too had a conflict.

Credit: WXIA

“The concern we have is, it's incumbent upon district attorneys to determine whether they have a conflict in a particular case [and] weren't notified of the communications or any of the actions that had occurred,” Carr told The Reveal.

On April 2, more than a month after he began handling the Arbery case, Barnhill finally revealed his conflicts, but not to the attorney general's office.

In a letter to Captain Tom Jump of Glynn County Police Department regarding the case, Barnhill explained to the police captain that Ahmaud Arbery’s mother raised some concerns about the fact that Barnhill's son is an investigator in the Brunswick District Attorney’s office where Greg McMichael once worked and also noted that the younger Barnhill had previously prosecuted Arbery.

RELATED: Recused District Attorney found 'insufficient probable cause' for immediate arrests in Ahmaud Arbery case

Barnhill went on to list five reasons why he believes the shooting was “justifiable.”

Barnhill went on to suggest Arbery shot himself as he was struggling with Travis McMichael over the gun even though the official police report from the Glynn County Police Department said, “Travis fired a shot and then a second later there was a second shot.”

According to Attorney General Carr, on April 7, Barnhill informed the AG’s office he was recusing himself from the case. It was then that Barnhill revealed his conflicts to the attorney general’s office.

Carr notes in a May 10 news release, “the request of April 7, 2020 did not provide any reason for the delay in contacting the Office of the Attorney General to request appointment of a new prosecutor since the discovery of those facts.”

In the same news release, Carr says Barnhill “again did not inform the Office of the Attorney General of his prior involvement in the case before his appointment and specifically described to the Office of the Attorney General the actions that he took ‘upon taking the case’.”

RELATED: Handling of Ahmaud Arbery shooting could spark DOJ investigation after AG Chris Carr's request

Carr went on to say Barnhill told him he learned as of “'about 3-4 weeks ago,' that his son who is employed as a prosecutor in the Brunswick Circuit District Attorney's office, had handled a prior prosecution of Mr. Arbery and that one of the defendants in this case had also served as an investigator on the same prosecution.”

At the time, it had been nine weeks since the shooting and Barnhill had been involved in the Arbery case within the first 24 hours.

The Glynn County Police Department, which has also come under fire for how it handled the investigation, explained in a news release, “it was ultimately decided not to seek out the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to review the case [early on in the investigation] given that none of the officers involved in the case were employed with the Police Department, from 1982 to 1989, when Greg McMichael was employed by the department and the officers involved in the case had little to no contact with Mr. McMichael when he was employed by the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office.”

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