As Arbery trial starts, Glynn County seeks accountability
by Margaret Coker, The Current
October 14, 2021
The Current is an independent, in-depth and investigative journalism website for Coastal Georgia.
On the sunny winter day before Ahmaud Arbery went out for a weekend jog, the 25-year-old had started a load of laundry at his mother’s house and prepared a plate of leftovers for a lunch that he would never eat. Shortly after 1 p.m., about two miles from home, he was chased by three men and killed.
This week starts the murder trial for the three men suspected of Arbery’s death: Gregory McMichael, a former Glynn County police officer and longtime investigator for the district attorney’s office; his adult son Travis McMichael, a retired Coast Guardsman; and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. While the court case will likely raise the questions of race, injustice and concerns about crime among Glynn County residents, a larger, fundamental issue plaguing the county will remain unresolved: the mistrust in local police.
The Arbery family waited 73 days for the first arrest in their son’s killing, despite compelling evidence in the possession of Glynn County police and prosecutors from the first moments of the investigation. In their quest for accountability, they have joined a long list of Glynn residents and families, Black and white, who see local law enforcement and the district attorney’s office as protectors of inequality and injustice as much as public safety.
“The police didn’t shoot and kill my son, but they hold some responsibility here,” says Wanda Jones, the mother of Ahmaud. “We have been fighting for answers, for justice, while the system protected the suspects. How are you supposed to trust a system like that?”
A six-month investigation of Glynn County police records and court documents by The Current show a persistent lack of accountability among county law enforcement that stretches back a decade. Between 2010-2019 the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute a single county police officer. Glynn police officers have been involved in at least six controversial shootings and named as defendants in at least a dozen civil lawsuits alleging misconduct, including racial profiling and wrongful death.
In the same 10 years, only six officers have been terminated for cause, five of them for failing to pass mandatory training, and one for inappropriate conduct on the job, according to police records.
The Glynn County Police and Glynn County government did not respond to multiple telephone and email requests for interviews or comment about what the data shows.
Lawyers for former district attorney Jackie Johnson did not respond to requests for comment. The police have said in the past that they conducted the Arbery investigation professionally. Johnson, in her single media interview given to local radio in 2020, said she acted appropriately in the Arbery investigation as well.
Glynn County has been distinctive in another key way. During the last five years whistleblowers from the police department and grand jurors, using a rarely used investigatory mandate, both raised alarm bells about alleged misconduct within the 122-member police force.
County settles lawsuit over 2018 death
The police department’s checkered history may have been among the reasons that prompted the county earlier this summer to quietly settle, for the first time, a civil suit regarding police misconduct. The lawsuit was filed by Debra Gann in January 2020, a month before Arbery’s death.
Gann’s daughter, Katie Sasser, was murdered in 2018 by her estranged husband, Glynn County Police Lt. Robert “Cory” Sasser, who hunted her down in neighboring McIntosh County, shot and killed her and a male friend before killing himself. Sasser had a lengthy, documented history of discipline problems on the job and violence against his wife, yet his police colleagues never arrested or charged him with a crime or ensured that he complied with a judicial order to surrender his guns as part of an acrimonious divorce settlement with Katie.
The Glynn County Board of Commissioners in June approved a $1 million out-of-court settlement to the Gann family, an amount equal to the limit of its liability insurance policy. The payment does not include an apology or an admission of guilt in Katie’s death, according to Gann, who along with her husband is now raising their young grandson.
Gann decided to sue the county government and police after former district attorney Johnson declined to pursue criminal charges against the police for what her lawyers argued was willful violation of the department’s own standards and procedures to protect victims of domestic abuse. As part of the discovery in the court case, the Glynn County police force told Gann’s lawyers that several years of Sasser’s disciplinary record were missing from their files. They could not provide an explanation as to what happened to the files, according to court records.
The civil suit wasn’t about the money, Gann says, but rather the pursuit of a legal precedent to help other families in their quest for accountability with Glynn County police and local officials.
“I was brought to believe that you go to the police if you have a problem, but I don’t think that anymore. That’s what Glynn County did to me,” said Gann, who has since moved out of state. “Losing our Katie should have been enough for the police department to change. Perhaps now is finally the time.”
The county commissioners did not respond to emails requesting comment about the settlement. Discussions about the case that took place in closed sessions of the county’s public meetings are excluded from public records requests.
Laws protect police from judgment
While Arbery’s killing prompted passage of legislation to rescind Georgia’s post Civil War-era citizens’ arrest law that allowed private persons to detain people in limited situations, several other state laws historically shield police from judicial review and censure.
Georgia is one of 27 states that recognizes the legal concept of qualified immunity, which protects governmental entities, including police, from personal liability unless there is a clearly established constitutional violation. The civil suits filed in Glynn County against the police up until 2021 have been tossed out of court without a judge examining the merits of the suit because no precedent of constitutional violations exists in the local judicial circuit.
That was true in 2012 when Marjorie McRae, a member of the dwindling number of Black homeowners on St. Simons Island, sued the county police for racial profiling during a traffic stop after she crossed the causeway heading home from Brunswick. After a local court dismissed the suit, McRae, a qualified lawyer and medical doctor, decided to appeal. Yet a state appellate judge dismissed the case without examining the merits, citing qualified immunity.
In 2014, the family of Caroline Small also tried to sue the county police after district attorney Johnson declined to pursue charges against the two officers who followed her on an erratic, low-speed chase and then, after immobilizing her vehicle, fired eight shots and killed her. Federal Judge Lisa Wood, who presided over the civil suit filed in the Southern District of Georgia, wrote in her ruling: “Based on the record evidence, two conclusions are clear: Was her death necessary? No. Was it unconstitutional? No.” She ruled against the Small family, citing qualified immunity.
- RELATED: Listen to more about the shooting of Caroline Small, DA Jackie Johnson’s role in covering it up to protect the officers, and the consequences of that cover-up.
Citizens flex oversight muscle in grand juries
Within the sphere of criminal justice, meanwhile, alleged victims of police abuse are not the only people in Glynn County who have sought more accountability from county law enforcement.
Since 2016, Glynn residents empaneled as grand jury members have raised questions about what they considered a lack of oversight over officers by senior police and the county commissioners, who have the power to hire and fire the police chief.
Grand jury members in 2016 were the first to call for abolishing the county police force, something they documented in a written report known as a presentment. That recommendation was made in the wake of an investigation by WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution into alleged mishandling of the 2010 investigation of the Small killing. Those revelations revived community outrage over a lack of prosecution by the two police officers who had bragged about the quality of their shots fired at the young white woman with a history of mental illness.
In 2018, the grand jury took advantage of its authority to independently investigate the actions of a joint narcotics task force that was led by the Glynn County police amid allegations of criminal misbehavior among its officers.
The grand jury empaneled in March 2019 wrote its own presentment lambasting the county police and the commissioners. Summarizing their own investigation, grand jury members concluded that the policing culture was one of cronyism and coverups. The presentment pointed to specific incidents whereby officers were alleged to have had sex with confidential informants, pressured witnesses to change testimony and other illegal behavior. The grand jury, which was acting as a watchdog and not part of a case led by the district attorney’s office in the matter, urged further investigation of the misconduct.
One of the grand jury members who spoke to The Current but requested anonymity to honor the confidentiality of the grand jury process was so appalled by a lack of internal checks and controls at the police department, that he had no confidence that the department could reform.
Glynn chief, D.A. face own criminal indictments
In September 2019, when the damning presentment was made public by Stephen G. Scarlett, the chief judge of the Brunswick circuit Superior Court, the district attorney hired a special outside prosecutor to take on the criminal investigation against four senior officers: former Glynn County police chief, John Powell, his former chief of staff and two senior police officers.
The special prosecutor, Tracy Graham Lawson, was the recently retired, longtime district attorney from Clayton County who also had a home on St. Simons Island. In Clayton County she had secured indictments against the county’s longtime sheriff and had a reputation as a bruising crime fighter.
By February 2020, the four senior officers were facing both the threat of criminal indictment from Lawson’s grand jury and liability in the separate civil suit filed by the Gann family. Two people familiar with the situation at the Glynn County Police at the time of Arbery’s death say that the force was suffering from a lack of leadership and direction. They also said acrimony between the police department and the DA’s office was mounting because of the grand jury inquiry.
On Feb. 23, the department received the 911 calls around lunchtime reporting shots fired in Satilla Shores and a Black man dead at the scene. Officers quickly arrived at the majority white neighborhood.
On Feb 27, 2020, a week later, the grand jury filed 19 indictments against Powell and the three senior police officers, including charges of improperly influencing a witness, attempting to commit perjury and violations of their oath of office. Powell was placed on paid administrative leave.
Johnson recused herself from the Arbery case, citing a conflict of interest with one of the suspects, the elder McMichael who worked in her office for years.
Although she had run unopposed as district attorney for 10 years, Johnson was defeated in a landslide in the November 2020 elections. This summer she was indicted for allegedly showing favor to the Arbery case suspects by using her power as a prosecutor to keep them out of jail.
Through those murky two months that the Arbery family waited for clarity about what had happened to Ahmaud on his afternoon jog, both Black and white residents in Glynn County turned their outrage to activism to pressure state agencies to get involved.
Legal professionals, including Attorney General Chris Carr and the head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, added to the criticism of the county police for not immediately arresting the three men who are now on trial for murder, despite the department having the cell phone video taken by Bryan at the scene of Arbery’s death. The GBI, which was called in to take over the investigation on May 6, 2020, used the video as probable cause necessary for arrest warrants and the basis of criminal charges against the three men now on trial.
Police procedures form basis of future trials
Thirteen Glynn County police officers answered the 911 call that alerted them to the shooting death in Satilla Shores. Body camera footage taken by the first officers on the scene have inflamed community perceptions of police bias towards the suspects, who are all white, and callousness towards Arbery, who can be seen in on the body cam footage in anguished death throes.
None of those officers have faced disciplinary action for their conduct at the crime scene. Glynn County police, in communications with the county commissioners and county officials reviewed by The Current, have said they handled the investigation according to department standards. Glynn police chief Jacques Battiste, a veteran Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who was hired last summer, declined multiple requests for comment.
The Arbery family on the anniversary of Ahmaud’s death, filed its own civil suit against the three criminal defendants, Glynn County, local prosecutors and the police force. The suit alleges 14 complaints including excessive force, failure to prevent harm and willful and wanton misconduct. The three murder suspects also face federal charges of hate crimes.
The Arbery civil case will be adjudicated after the state criminal trial is complete. It’s unclear how, if at all, the county’s settlement with the Gann family will help the Arbery civil case withstand the legal barrier of qualified immunity.
The family’s lawyers say they are focused on proving a constitutional violation as well as violations of the police department’s own procedures to protect and serve the citizens of Glynn County equally.
“The department failed to meaningfully investigate the circumstances surrounding Ahmaud’s murder,” according to the lawsuit.
Jacqueline GaNun and Kayla Guilliams contributed to this report.