However, it took Johnson three days to report her conflict of interest – and her behavior meanwhile has led to widespread criticism, an ongoing state investigation into her actions, and an independent challenger speaking out against the Republican prosecutor.
On Tuesday, voters ousted Johnson and elected former prosecutor Keith Higgins by 5,000 votes, according to the Brunswick News, after a campaign that relied on the district attorney’s accountability to the police who refused to indict Arbery’s murderer for months.
“We’re overlooking our local races,” Dwight Jordan, a local educator and activist who helped voters vote Johnson out, told the Washington Post in October. “We can no longer afford that.”
Arbery, 25, was fatally shot while jogging in Brunswick on February 23. Gregory McMichael, then 64, and his son Travis McMichael, then 34, claimed they followed him because they believed he was behind a series of break-ins, and then Travis shot Arbery when he tried to take his gun.
The cell phone video showed Arbery jogging past her truck and then being shot after fighting one of the men.
Johnson knew Gregory McMichael because he had worked as an investigator in the prosecutor’s office for years until 2019. However, by the time Johnson called Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (R), who would elect a replacement under state law, Johnson had already contacted District Attorney George Barnhill of the nearby town of Waycross, Georgia to take the case, reported the constitution of the Atlanta Journal.
During those three days, according to the Journal constitution, Barnhill met with the police and decided that the McMichaels had not committed a crime. However, in April Barnhill also pulled out of the case because his son had worked with Gregory McMichael in the Brunswick prosecutor’s office.
Eventually, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took the case and on May 7th charged Gregory and Travis McMichael of the murder and aggravated assault. Later that month, William Bryan Jr., who recorded the shooting, was charged with murderous murder and attempted criminal wrongdoing.
Days after the video of Arbery’s death went viral, Carr asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate Johnson and Barnhill’s behavior in the Arbery case. The Post reported last month that the state investigation is still under review. Johnson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a debate last month, Johnson defended her actions, saying she was misunderstood. “The lack of trust is the result of people with an agenda who have taken advantage of this case and shared our community for their own ends,” she said.
District attorney elections are often sleepy, with little competition and minimal interest from local residents. Public prosecutors are seldom ousted, even if they have been accused of wrongdoing. But a wave of black killings across the country sparked an unusual move for change in the five Conservative counties that Johnson oversaw as part of the Brunswick Judicial Court.
For critics, Johnson became a prime example of a corrupt and racist criminal justice system, the Post reported last month. Arbery’s case brought to light some of her earlier controversial cases. In 2011, she assisted two police officers charged with a fatal shootout. This was the result of an investigation by the Journal Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. Johnson shared evidence with defense attorneys and agreed not to bring charges unless requested by the grand jury.
Higgins, the first competitive challenger for the seat in decades, entered the race with almost double the number of signatures. Most were from those seeking justice for Arbery.
As a former prosecutor for the prosecution, Higgins held back from pursuing Johnson’s handling of the Arbery investigation. But he admitted he needed to fix a lack of community trust in the office.
“I look forward to working with the community and rebuilding trust in our legal system,” he said in a statement on Facebook.