SAVANNAH, Ga. -- A Georgia prosecutor who was criticized for her office's response to the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery has been ousted by voters, who elected an independent candidate who had to collect thousands of signatures to get on the ballot.
District Attorney Jackie Johnson, a Republican, lost her reelection bid Tuesday after serving a decade as the top prosecutor in southeast Georgia's Brunswick Judicial Circuit. Johnson said she believes Arbery's slaying, and what she says are false allegations blaming her for a long delay before arrests were made, played a big role in her defeat.
“It was a very big factor," Johnson said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I’m confident that when the truth finally comes out on that, people will understand our office did what it had to under the circumstances.”
Arbery was slain in February by a white father and son who armed themselves and pursued the 25-year-old Black man as he ran through their neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick. More than two months passed before Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested on murder charges. In a year of protests over killings of unarmed Black men, Arbery's death caused a national outcry.
Gregory McMichael was a retired investigator who had worked in Johnson's office. Because of that relationship, Johnson says, she immediately recused her office from involvement in Arbery's killing and referred police to an outside prosecutor.
Two Glynn County commissioners accused prosecutors in Johnson's office of telling police not to arrest the McMichaels immediately after the shooting. Johnson insists she and her assistants gave no guidance to police. The McMichaels were charged in May soon after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case.
A neighbor who took cellphone video of the shooting, William “Roddie” Bryan, was also charged with murder. He and the McMichaels have pleaded not guilty.
Higgins worked as an assistant prosecutor in the Brunswick circuit for more than 20 years. He said Johnson fired him soon after she took office in 2010.
“The reason I ran is I believed the DA needed to be nonpartisan and justice should be consistent and applied how the law requires — to everyone, regardless of who they know,” Higgins said.
He said he was struggling to gather enough petition signatures to challenge Johnson before outrage over Arbery's killing erupted in May. With no Democrat opposing the district attorney, residents angry over the handling the Arbery case threw themselves behind Higgins' longshot campaign.
“I couldn’t answer my phone fast enough, I could not answer my door fast enough,” Higgins said. “People were coming wanting to sign and wanting me to get on the ballot.”
He said 8,500 people ultimately signed his petition, far more than the 3,000 signatures he needed.
After the McMichaels were charged in May, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asked the GBI and federal authorities to investigate potential misconduct by Johnson and Waycross circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, the first outside prosecutor to handle the case.
Barnhill found the shooting of Arbery to be justified, but ended up bowing to pressure to leave the case because his son works for Johnson as an assistant prosecutor. No findings have been released from the investigation Carr requested.
Unofficial election returns Wednesday showed Johnson carried four of the five counties in her circuit. But Glynn County, where Arbery was killed and the circuit's most populous county, favored Higgins by a huge margin.
Johnson called her rival Wednesday morning to concede the race.
“I congratulated him,” Johnson said, "and told him we want to have a very smooth transition in the DA’s office.”