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With Two Open Letters, Georgia Attorneys and Activists Take a Stand

On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was fatally shot in Glynn County, Georgia, while out for a run. His killers — 34 year old Travis McMichael, and his father Gregory McMichael, 64, grabbed their guns and followed Arbery in their truck as he jogged, later claiming they thought that Arbery resembled a man suspected of multiple burglaries in the neighborhood (there was actually no evidence of any burglaries in the area, except for the elder McMichael’s gun being stolen from his truck in January.)

Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s office and the Glynn County Police Department conducted the initial investigation into the murder. Johnson recused days after Arbery’s death, citing that Gregory McMichael (a former Glynn County police officer) had been a longtime investigator in her office. The case was taken over by Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill, who erroneously claimed that the McMichaels had acted legally under Georgia’s citizen arrest and self-defense laws. He told police that there was insufficient cause to arrest Arbery’s killers. He, too, recused from the case. 

In May, the JUSTGeorgia Coalition formed, organizing, in part, around demands for District Attorneys Barnhill and Johnson to resign for violating their oaths of office and Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (among other things). In an open letter to the Georgia State Bar sent on August 20th, more than 300 Georgia attorneys joined with JUSTGeorgia and several other civil rights groups in that demand.

“There were a lot of issues in both the actions – in both Barnhill and Jackie Johnson – that we as attorneys needed to speak up and say something about it. And not only that but the fact that George Barnhill wrote this letter prematurely exonerating the McMichaels; in that letter he offered factually incorrect, and legally unsound information,” attorney and signatory Chris Richardson told CBS46 about the letter. “What I wanted to say, with 313 other attorneys across Georgia, was enough was enough.”

In the days and weeks that followed the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (and George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and so many other Black Americans) people across the country took to the streets to demand change. In Atlanta, citizens protesting police brutality were often met with the very same tactics. Since late May, Atlanta Police Department officers have arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters, often for merely violating a curfew, blocking a roadway, or being “disorderly” where no violence was done and no property was allegedly damaged by the accused. As other mayors and prosecutors around the country (in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Chicago, and Dallas, to name a few) have realized, these arrests fail to respect the free speech rights of citizens.

Last Friday, a group of Georgia attorneys and activists sent an open letter to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, asking that Mayor Bottoms join government officials across the country by requesting that charges be dropped for all criminal cases at the protests — or at the very least, those that do not involve alleged physical violence or destruction of property.

“Each of these protesters face jail time, long lasting impact on their employment, sometimes immigration consequences, and in a time of great collective strife of a pandemic, another burden on their shoulders where the weight is already too much to bear,” the letter reads. “If these cases are litigated, the courts will be swamped with cases involving peaceful protesters in a time where all courts are concerned about devastating impacts of the pandemic on their operations and the safety of citizens and staff. The time is now to make this announcement. The opportunity to move forward, and not backward, is in your hands.”