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How a long-shot candidate tossed out the DA accused of mishandling the Ahmaud Arbery case

November 18, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Keith Higgins holds a campaign sign and waves at First Baptist Church on St. Simons.

A year ago it seemed like Keith Higgins' campaign for district attorney of his southeast Georgia district had stalled. Then came the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, and everything changed.

A year ago it seemed like Higgins' campaign for district attorney of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit had stalled without even getting off the ground.

Higgins, who was fired by Johnson years ago when he was an assistant prosecutor in her office, says he'd seen her mishandle cases before.

"It took not just one scandal, not even two scandals, but several scandals and then something as huge as the Ahmaud Arbery case to actually force a change in that office," Page said.

Shortly after the shooting, Johnson -- then a prosecutor in neighboring Camden County -- announced she was seeking to become district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit.

The AJC later reported that Johnson's office did not allow a key witness to testify at the officer's bond hearing, raising further questions about whether the officer was receiving preferential treatment from the district attorney's office.

Higgins had spent years as an assistant district attorney in the circuit, including for a time under Johnson.

"I saw the need for some changes to be made so that everybody would be treated equally fair regardless of who they are or who they know," said Higgins, who most recently has been working in private practice as a criminal justice attorney.

The case brought more scrutiny to the actions of the district attorney's office and the potential need for change, Pate said.

It would be more than two months from the time of Arbery's death before Gregory McMichael, 64, a former Glynn County cop and district attorney investigator, and his 34-year-old son, Travis McMichael, were arrested in connection with his killing.

Johnson recused herself from the case within days after Arbery was shot, citing Gregory's McMichael's 20 years as an investigator in her office.

Instead, the AJC reported, Johnson waited three days after the shooting before disclosing her conflict to the attorney general, by which time Barnhill had formed an opinion about the case.

The attorney general's office appointed Barnhill as the prosecutor in the Arbery case.

She said she also came across a profile of someone with the last name of Barnhill who worked in Johnson's office.

Cooper-Jones said she raised concerns about the apparent conflict of interest to the victim advocate in Barnhill's office as well as the state attorney general's office.

Eventually, Barnhill ended up recusing himself too, revealing to the attorney general's office on April 7 that his son was a prosecutor in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit DA's office and once worked with Gregory McMichael in a previous prosecution of Arbery.

The state attorney general's office said it was not aware of the connection when it appointed Barnhill.

Those outcomes -- and Higgins' victory especially -- speak to an increased scrutiny on prosecutors in recent months and a broader shift in what the public expects of them, said Pete Skandalakis, executive director for the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia.

Zerik Samples, then the chief development officer of the Coastal Georgia Area Community Action Authority, said he attended few community events where Higgins or someone from his campaign weren't also there.

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