Prosecutors in Georgia have spent weeks trying to persuade a jury that three men should be convicted of murder in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. But a different prosecutor who was assigned the case soon after Mr. Arbery was killed wrote that the shooting did not constitute a crime at all.
“We do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties,” George E. Barnhill, the district attorney for the Waycross Judicial Circuit, wrote in a letter to the state attorney general.
The case now reaches a jury after twists and turns through the legal system that inspired protests and outrage, with activists and some in the community fearing that Mr. Arbery’s killing had been mishandled and neglected by the authorities.
Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man, was shot and killed on Feb. 23, 2020, after he was chased by three white men on the outskirts of Brunswick, Ga. Though the case initially drew little notice outside the community, it soon attracted national attention, especially after a video emerged that showed the fatal encounter.
The first authorities to handle the case were the Glynn County Police Department and the Brunswick District Attorney’s office. But the day after the shooting, the district attorney, Jackie L. Johnson, recused herself because one of the men involved, Gregory McMichael, had been a longtime investigator in her department. Ms. Johnson later lost her bid for re-election and was indicted in September 2021 over her initial handling of the case; she has denied any wrongdoing.
After Ms. Johnson’s recusal, the case was handed to Mr. Barnhill, who also recused himself, but not before sending the letter to the Georgia attorney general. Mr. Barnhill argued in the letter that the three men were justified in trailing Mr. Arbery because they believed he was a suspect in a burglary.
“It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived,” Mr. Barnhill wrote. “Under Georgia Law this is perfectly legal.”
When Mr. Barnhill bowed out in April 2020 because his son had worked for Ms. Johnson alongside Mr. McMichael, the case went to a third prosecutor, Tom Durden. Mr. Durden responded to growing anger and criticism by announcing that a grand jury would consider whether to charge the men and that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would take over the investigation.
Soon after, the authorities said that Mr. McMichael and his son, Travis, had been arrested. (The third defendant, William Bryan, was charged later.)
Referring to the police and local prosecutors who did not initially arrest or charge anyone in Mr. Arbery’s death, Vic Reynolds, the director of the G.B.I., told reporters after arrests of the McMichaels, “I can’t answer what another agency did or didn’t see.”
But he added that once the case was in his bureau’s hands, “within 36 hours we had secured warrants for two individuals for felony murder — I think that speaks volumes.”
After that, the case changed prosecutors yet again. Mr. Durden stepped aside and the Georgia attorney general, Christopher M. Carr, appointed the district attorney’s office in Cobb County, in the Atlanta metropolitan area, to take over.
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