New Atlanta prosecutor will 'ensure justice is done' in Ahmaud Arbery shooting case, Georgia attorney general says
ATLANTA — The appointment of an Atlanta area district attorney to prosecute the Ahmaud Arbery case could eliminate bias after three southern Georgia district attorneys failed to arrest the two white men who killed Arbery, a law enforcement expert and family attorneys say.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced Monday that Joyette M. Holmes, who is the first black woman to serve as Cobb County District Attorney, would be taking over the case.
"Attorney Holmes is a respected attorney with experience, both as a lawyer and a judge, and the Cobb County District Attorney’s office has the resources, personnel and experience to lead this prosecution and ensure justice is done," Carr said in statement.
Carr said Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden, the lead prosecutor since April 13, will be stepping down from the case.
“This case has grown in size and magnitude since he accepted the appointment on April 13, 2020, and as an experienced district attorney, Tom has recognized that another office is better suited from a resource perspective to now handle the case," Carr said.
Cobb is a suburban Atlanta county about 330 miles north of Satilla Shores. The latter is a small community where Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was killed Feb. 23 while jogging.
Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, who chased Arbery through the neighborhood and shot him, were arrested and charged with murder last week. The arrest came one day after the Georgia Bureau of Investigations announced it would begin aiding the case.
The McMichaels were denied bond at a court appearance Friday and are being held at the Glynn County Detention Center, according to local media reports.
L. Chris Stewart, an Atlanta-based attorney who partnered with S. Lee Merritt and Benjamin Crump to represent the Arbery family, said he was pleased with Carr's decision to appoint Holmes to the case. He said Holmes is a "very effective prosecutor."
"It's giving this case the fair shot that it needs," Stewart told USA TODAY. "And we are optimistic about the job that she can do."
Merritt and Stewart said in a joint statement Monday that they made a request to Carr that a new district attorney be put on the Arbery case because the "south Georgia prosecutorial community was tainted by the delay in action prior to the video being released."
Merritt said on Twitter that Holmes' office was being reviewed for any conflicts.
Holmes said in a statement Monday that her office expects to present the case to a grand jury for indictment. She acknowledged that the courts were closed through June 12 due to coronavirus, but said her team "will work as expeditiously as possible to move the case forward."
The appointment of Holmes comes after Carr requested the Department of Justice to investigate the handling of the Arbery case. Carr said he wants the department to review discussions between the offices of Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson and Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill regarding the Arbery investigation.
Advocates for the Arbery family believe relationships between Johnson, Barnhill and the McMichaels prevented arrests earlier in the investigation.
Johnson recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael was a former investigator for her office.
However, Glynn County police, who responded to the scene, said in a statement that Johnson's office told them "no arrests were necessary."
The case was then handed over to Barnhill who later recused himself because his son worked in Johnson's office. Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery's mother, wanted Barnhill off the case because of that conflict of interest.
But in a letter to Glynn County Police Captain Tom Jump, Barnhill wrote that there was no grounds for arresting the McMichaels. He cited Georgia's citizens arrest law, saying the McMichaels were in "hot pursuit" of a burglary suspect when they followed Arbery.
The law allows private citizens to make arrests if they witness the offense or have immediate knowledge of it.
Arbery family attorneys reject that claim and say surveillance videos shows Arbery was not committing a crime before he was killed.
Sarah Gerwig-Moore, a criminal law professor at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., said it's unusual for four different district attorneys to oversee a homicide case. It's also rare for the state attorney general and Department of Justice to intervene because local district attorneys have so much authority.
But in this case, Gerwig-Moore said there has been an "apparent mishandling" of the investigation.
"There's some sense that an arrest would never have happened if not for the public outcry that happened after the release of the video," Gerwig-Moore said. "It's necessary for a whole new office to be involved because of the low level of confidence."
Stewart said he would like the Department of Justice to remove from office the former district attorneys who led the case. They could also have their law licenses suspended if the department finds there was negligence.
Brunswick NAACP Rev. President John Perry II said the community supports the selection of Holmes.
"We are very excited about that," Perry said. "Our concern was that it gets out of this area. Now we have a little bit more confidence that it will be tried properly."