All the Lawyers Who Stood Between Ahmaud Arbery and Justice

·7 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

The three notorious white men caught on video chasing and fatally attacking Ahmaud Arbery last February are now officially convicted murderers.

But Gregory McMichael, his son Travis, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan” are not the only villains in the gruesome case plagued by allegations of initial prosecutorial misconduct before arrests were made 70 days after the 25-year-old Black man’s shooting death in Georgia.

The prosecutors who won the case argued that Arbery was on a jog through Satilla Shores, a mostly white neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia when the trio chased him down the street after wrongly suspecting him of burglary. Travis McMichael was caught on video footage—filmed by Bryan—firing the fatal shots. ​The defense for the three men argued that they were trying to perform a citizen’s arrest on Arbery in connection with suspected break-ins in the area.

After nine hours and two days of deliberation, a Glynn County jury on Wednesday found the three men guilty of felony murder in the Feb. 23, 2020 homicide death of Arbery. But Arbery’s murder was almost never prosecuted. And when the case did make it to trial, defense attorneys stepped over themselves to engage in ugly arguments rife with racist innuendo.

Every murder saga has its share of morally flexible defense lawyers, and prosecutors who fail to protect the rights of people of color are not exactly hard to come by in America. But this crew stands out from the pack.

Former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson

Last February, Johnson was the Brunswick District Attorney in the midst of a re-election campaign when Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and one-time investigator in her office, called her after his son shot Arbery to death in the street. Eventually, Johnson referred the case to Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill, recusing herself. But investigators now allege she meddled in the case before handing over the reins.

On Sept. 2, after losing her re-election bid, Johnson was indicted on several charges—including obstructing police—after allegedly directing officers to not arrest the McMichaels after the incident. The indictment also states that Johnson showed “favor and affection” to Gregory McMichael and failed to treat Arbery’s family “fairly and with dignity” when she recused herself from the investigation. Johnson has not yet entered a plea in her case, and her attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Fox News Legal Analyst: I’m ‘Very Embarassed’ by Defense Antics in Arbery Trial

Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill

The second of four prosecutors to touch the Arbery case, Barnhill also recused himself early in the investigation after learning his son had also worked in Johnson’s office—and even paired up with Gregory McMichael on a case involving Arbery.

But before completely relinquishing control of the case, Barnhill went out of his way to clear the white men who are now facing life in prison. In a letter to the Glynn County Police Department, Barnhill argued that there was “insufficient probable cause to issue arrest warrants” for Bryan and the McMichaels. Specifically, he appeared to buy the whole theory of their defense, stating in the letter that the trio’s intent “was to stop and hold” a burglary suspect until law enforcement arrived, and their citizen’s arrest actions were “perfectly legal” under Georgia law. The law has since been repealed.

Barnhill added that Travis McMichael and his father were within their rights to carry their firearms that day under Georgia’s open-carry law—and that Arbery gave him grounds “to use deadly force to protect himself” under state law.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced last spring that the agency was investigating whether Barnhill mishandled Arbery’s case, though there have been no official updates in the investigation. Barnhill did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment about his past actions.

“It was a huge mistake by the district attorneys and reveals their clear bias in favor of their former colleague, Gregory McMichael, and his son,” former federal prosecutor Neama Rahman told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.

Defense attorney Kevin Robert Gough

Since the McMichaels and Bryan were arrested last May, all three of their defense teams have insisted that their clients’ motives were not racially motivated. Every criminal defendant is entitled to representation, and such arguments are far from shocking. But when the trial began earlier this month in Glynn County, the person who seemed most intent on talking about the issue of race in the courtroom was Bryan’s defense attorney Kevin Gough.

Throughout the three-week trial, Gough motioned for a mistrial seven times—each time claiming that Black pastors in the courtroom were influencing the jury. And even after Gough came under fire early in the trial for attempting to bar “any more Black pastors coming” into the courtroom, the defense attorney continued to double down on the issue.

In his last motion for a mistrial, Gough even went as far to say that the “woke mob” was influencing the case, and that “just because they haven’t put a podium up outside with a hangman’s noose, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t a trial.”

“This is what a public lynching looks like in the 21st century, with all due respect,” Gough said during his courtroom tirade in what might have been his most brazen remark in a case involving white men chasing down and killing a Black man they merely suspected of a crime.

In the end, Gough’s comments prompted over a hundred Black pastors to host a rally outside the courthouse last week. Even Jason Sheffield, the defense attorney for Travis McMichael, called out Gough for his “asinine and ridiculous” crusade. Gough did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

Defense attorney Laura Hogue

In what may have been the lowest point in a trial full of them, the defense attorney for Gregory McMichael took time during her closing arguments to argue to jurors that Arbery had bad hygiene.

“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails,” Laura Hogue, one defense attorney for Gregory McMichael, said during her closing arguments on Monday, drawing audible gasps from people in the courtroom.

Throughout the trial, the three defense teams repeatedly tried to argue to jurors that Arbery was a criminal who was on parole at the time of his death. But Hogue took the argument one step further on Monday, commenting on Arbery’s nails as if they were justification for murder. The comment was met with immediate backlash, including from Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who told CNN she left the courtroom upon hearing it.

“I thought it was very, very rude to talk about his long, dirty toenails and to totally neglect that my son had a huge hole in his chest when he was shot with that shotgun,” she said.

Hogue did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, but her husband and legal partner insisted the hygiene attack was essential to their (failed) defense. The idea, he suggested, was to use it to somehow disprove that Arbery was a nonviolent jogger that day.

“The public has been steeped in the ‘jogger’ narrative for so long and to such an extent that it’s no surprise that the public (and the media) will characterize the remark as a racist trope, designed to persuade racist jurors,” he said in an email. “Or something like that.”

If the shenanigans of the local legal system and conduct of the defense lawyers risked harkening back to a twisted era, the jurors seemed to sift through the noise, experts said.

“The jury saw right through the defense’s shameful race-baiting tactics,” Rahman said.

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