Justice Requires Meaningful Oversight and Accountability of Prosecutors
Last week, former District Attorney Jackie Johnson was criminally indicted on charges of violation of oath of a public officer and obstruction of a police officer in relation to the role she is alleged to have played in the Ahmaud Arbery case.
Prosecutors wield immense power, especially here in Georgia. Many use that power responsibly. However, if left unchecked and unaccountable in a society that already tends to normalize injustice and inequitable treatment toward Black people and those without access to power, then misconduct, favoritism, corruption, and official indifference to (or even encouragement of) blatant injustice can reign supreme; like it did for many years among some in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit.
When those with power are left unchecked and unaccountable – left to determine for themselves when to follow the rules and when they can be disregarded, which lives matter and which don’t, we ALL suffer.
In May of 2020, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr requested the U.S. Department of Justice conduct a formal investigation into the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery case saying, “We are committed to a complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset. The family, the community and the state of Georgia deserve answers, and we will work with others in law enforcement at the state and federal level to find those answers.”
More than a year later, a Glynn County grand jury true billed the indictment alleging Johnson failed to discharge her duties as district attorney “…by showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation into the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, thereby failing to discharge her duties as district attorney…” and “…by failing to treat Ahmaud Arbery and his family fairly and with dignity…”.
In Dennis Perry’s case, we also witnessed the then-DA’s unwillingness to do justice, particularly when it involved demonstrating accountability and admitting error and misconduct. In 2020, Perry’s legal team from Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding presented new exculpatory DNA evidence, alternate suspect information, and proof of official misconduct to then Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson. Rather than correcting the clear wrongful and unjust conviction, however, Johnson refused to consent to a new trial for Perry and instead delayed relief for a clearly innocent and wrongfully imprisoned man by requesting that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reopen the investigation of the 1985 murders. As a result, GIP and King & Spalding filed an Extraordinary Motion for New Trial (EMNT) in April 2020 and requested a hearing as soon as possible, given that Perry remained in prison amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the contested EMNT hearing in July, Perry’s legal team introduced proof of prosecutorial misconduct and the new DNA evidence, along with testimony from several witnesses who testified the alternate suspect had admitted to committing the murders. District Attorney Jackie Johnson fought hard every step of the way to defend the conviction and keep Perry in prison, by having the original trial prosecutor John Johnson and external contract attorney Andrew Ekonomou vigorously oppose the motion, primarily on technical grounds. Innocence appeared irrelevant to DA Johnson’s team, who also aggressively challenged assertions by witnesses who testified that they suffered domestic violence at the hands of the alternate suspect. Brunswick Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett granted the EMNT on July 17, 2020, vacating Perry’s conviction. Three days later, rejecting the DA’s request that Dennis Perry be banished from the county where Dennis’ wife and family lived, Judge Scarlett ordered Perry’s release from prison on his own recognizance to await DA Jackie Johnson’s decision whether to dismiss the underlying charges. It wasn’t until a year later after a new district attorney, Keith Higgins, was elected the charges against Dennis Perry were finally dismissed and Perry was exonerated.
Prosecuting attorneys are duty-bound to act with integrity to ensure accuracy, accountability, and justice. Those core values simply must trump the politically expedient choice to secure and defend convictions at all cost, and the desire to protect only a select few.
We applaud the actions of everyone, including voters, jurors, judges, law enforcement, reporters, and even other prosecutors, who fought in Brunswick Judicial Circuit and elsewhere to hold prosecutors accountable to their duty to justice.
GIP encourages the Georgia State Bar to promptly request Georgia’s Supreme Court to adopt proposed revisions to Rule 3.8 which would strengthen the ethics rules that govern the special responsibilities of prosecutors and discourage misconduct in the future.