The District Attorney Who Saw “No Grounds for Arrest” in the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery Has a History

Olivia Pearson’s life was turned upside down by George Barnhill, and she hasn’t forgotten.

A mural that says "Welcome to Brunswick Georgia" on a building with police cars parked in front of it
“Justice in South Georgia,” Olivia Pearson said a few days ago, “is hard to achieve for African Americans.” Sean Rayford/Getty Images

On April 1, Georgia District Attorney George Barnhill finally received the autopsy report for a 25-year-old black jogger killed during a Feb. 23 confrontation with three white Glynn County men. A day later, Barnhill laid out the case for why he didn’t believe the men should be arrested for the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery.

“It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and [William Bryan] were following, in ‘hot pursuit,’ a burglary suspect, with solid firsthand probable cause,” Barnhill wrote to a Glynn County police captain in a three-page letter. “Given the fact Arbery initiated the fight, at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun [that Travis McMichael was holding], under Georgia law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.”

As we all now know, Arbery wasn’t the burglar, and there was no good reason to think he was, but Barnhill’s letter provided the foundation of the argument against charging the McMichaels until just a few days ago, when a grisly cellphone video of Arbery’s death went viral and brought national outrage and renewed attention to the case.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation Wednesday and charged the McMichaels with murder and aggravated assault Thursday. A day later, the agency couldn’t help but take a swipe at the local investigation.

“Probable cause was clear to our agents pretty quickly,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds said during a press conference Friday, implying that it should have been just as clear to George Barnhill.

Barnhill, 63, has worked in relative obscurity as a small-town prosecutor for 36 years. He was assigned the case only after another prosecutor recused herself because Greg McMichael used to work in her office. In the letter to the police captain, Barnhill noted Greg McMichael also worked in a district attorney’s office where his son is a prosecutor.

“The victim’s mother has clearly expressed she wants myself and my office off the case,” Barnhill wrote. “She believes there are kinships between the parties (there are not) and has made other unfounded allegations of bias(es).”

A few weeks later, Barnhill requested the state assign another prosecutor to the case, but only after making clear that he saw “no grounds for arrest.”

Barnhill’s role in the Arbery shooting is his first real brush with national scrutiny. But I recalled Barnhill from an assignment in 2017, when he was doggedly pursuing Olivia Pearson on charges of felony voter fraud. Pearson, a 58-year-old black activist and city commissioner in the South Georgia town of Douglas, stood accused of improperly helping a woman vote—showing a young, first-time, black voter how to use a voting machine when she didn’t know how—in October 2012.

Barnhill had worked as a prosecutor in this rural corner of Georgia since graduating from Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in 1983. In 2014, he was elected district attorney of a six-county region. “Criminal prosecution is what I do,” Barnhill told the Waycross Journal-Herald in 2014. “I enjoy trying cases. This has always been my profession, what I chose to do.”

Barnhill’s prosecution of Pearson was part of a larger campaign by then–Secretary of State (and now Gov.) Brian Kemp, Georgia’s top elections official, to make vigilance against voter fraud a priority. I was alerted to the case while reporting on voter suppression efforts heading into the 2016 presidential election. Voting rights groups flagged Barnhill’s prosecution as part of an obvious and well-orchestrated attempt to intimidate black voters. After all, Pearson was accused of simply showing a young woman how to use a voting machine, not of influencing her vote.

It was an especially uncommon prosecution: At the time, only 10 of the 154 illegal voter assistance investigations in the previous three years in Georgia had been referred to a prosecutor. Most were closed without a ruling or dismissed. But Barnhill’s office was relentless in pursuing what they saw as an important case, and Pearson’s prosecution spanned two trials and two years.

I covered Pearson’s first trial in April 2017. It ended in a mistrial due to a 29-year-old black female juror named Lenecia Armour, the only juror to stand between Pearson and a felony conviction and a possible 15-year prison sentence. “It was torture,” Armour said at the time of disagreeing with the rest of the jury.

“I still have days when that wears on me,” Pearson told me this week. “Because I think about—what if that young juror had given in to their pressure, you know?”

Barnhill’s office quickly refiled the case and the second trial was held in February 2018. This time, Pearson’s prosecution had earned more attention around the state, and a number of local voters’ rights groups helped with her defense. That case ended with much less drama; Pearson was acquitted of all charges after less than 30 minutes of jury deliberations.

“Ms. Pearson did absolutely nothing wrong, and her life was in turmoil for years because DA Barnhill would not back down,” Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said earlier this week. “This old tactic of Southern oppression sent palpable waves of fear throughout her community.”

I called Pearson last week after seeing Barnhill’s name in the news again. She told me she has tried to forget about him and move on with her life. She was reelected to the city commission last fall and has continued her work in the community, a place mired in poverty and inequality. But it wasn’t lost on her—and others who worked on her case—that Barnhill showed much more vigor in prosecuting her than in working to convict Ahmaud Arbery’s killers.

“It’s deeply disturbing to stack the so-called crime pattern in Olivia Pearson’s case against the actions that extinguished Mr. Arbery’s life, and see which actions warranted prosecution in DA Barnhill’s judgment,” Totonchi said. In her view, this only “confirms the racial animus in Barnhill’s decisions around prosecutions.” (Don Samuel, a longtime defense attorney in Atlanta who was part of Pearson’s legal team for the second trial was reluctant to criticize Barnhill in those terms when I called him this week, saying “there are a lot of really shitty DAs in this state,” but, “for a country [DA], he’s a pretty decent guy.”)

Back in Douglas, Pearson has been working with organizers and civil rights groups to support Arbery’s family. Before I spoke with her Thursday night, Pearson had spent a couple of hours on a Zoom conference call discussing the arrests earlier that day of Greg and Travis McMichael. There were plans for a 4-mile walk and ride-along in Arbery’s honor.

Pearson told me she hoped Barnhill’s role in the case wouldn’t be forgotten.

“It’s not his first time doing something contrary to sound judgment and legal process,” Pearson said. “That’s why I’ve been speaking out as long as I have.”

But she also knows it’s not just Barnhill. “Justice in South Georgia is hard to achieve for African Americans,” she said when we talked. “South Georgia is so prejudiced and racist, it’s just sad.”