Ahmaud Arbery Case Highlights Problem of Insider Favoritism in Law Enforcement

Ahmaud arbery painting.


Today, there is widespread happiness that justice has been done in Ahmaud Abery’s case. He was killed by a mix of racism and suspicions, and his three accomplices were sentenced to felony murder.

But, the positive aspect of this case should not be overlooked. Because one defendant is an ex-prosecutor’s employee, the two of them almost avoided charges. Reason’sBilly Binion shares his insights:

[T]He defense has diverted attention away from Jackie Johnson’s seediness. In September, Johnson was charged with violating her oath office and hindering police. Johnson is accused of allegedly giving McMichaels favorable treatments and making sure that they were not arrested in the wake of Arbery’s murder.

Such charges against prosecutors are almost unheard of…..

The investigation was not completed by the government until several months later. According to her indictment, Johnson was the Brunswick Judicial Circuit Attorney at the time.

After losing reelection, the ex-prosecutor allegedly used her office “to show favor and affection to Greg McMichael,” a former employee of hers, in the state’s initial investigation into the case. This impeded law enforcement who she directed not to arrest Travis.

Johnson left the scene and hired George E. Barnhill, Waycross Judicial Circuit District attorney to take her place. She declined to disclose that Barnhill was involved in the murder. He stated that he had told police that the men shouldn’t be charged. He had also disclosed a conflict in interest. His son worked alongside McMichael at Johnson’s office, as well as on an earlier prosecution Arbery was facing. However, he continued to work on the case up until April. His mother discovered that he was biased and requested that he quit. Barnhill’s conduct is still being investigated as of September.

Arbery’s case would not have received the media’s attention it did in May 2020. Johnson’s prosecution malfeasance might have prevented Johnson from bringing charges against Barnhill.

Binion suggests that, without the extensive media coverage, this case might not have attracted the attention it received. However, conniving prosecutions may have been able to free the perpetrators. The case here is a prime example of the wider problem of criminal justice system insider favoritism. Too often law enforcement officers turn their backs on wrongdoing within their ranks or (as in this case) perpetrated at the hands of former employees.

Many cops are prevented from speaking out against their abusive colleagues by the so-called “blue wall”. New York City police unions hand out “courtesy notes” to family members and friends to enable them to avoid tickets for traffic violations.

Myself was once an innocent beneficiary of favoritism in law enforcement. Here’s the tale:

In 2001, I clerked for the [US Court of Appeals for the] Fifth Circuit in Houston, I was pulled over by a police officer for a minor traffic violation (I thought I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but the officer had a different view…). He asked me to show him my license, which I did….[S]Since I was temporarily living in Texas, my Massachusetts license was not suspended. The officer didn’t like this. The officer said that “Son” and required him to produce a Texas ID.

He didn’t need a Texas ID, which I knew. What happens to a motorist from another country who is just passing through Texas? He would have to show a Texas ID. I wasn’t surprised. Very reluctant to get into an argument with a cop;… [I]If I got him mad, he might saddle me with an even more costly ticket or worse. Instead of showing him an ID that was similar to one from Texas, I presented my Fifth Circuit ID.

“You work at the Court of Appeals?” He was skeptical. It is impossible to believe that such a suspect-looking person could be an employee within the criminal justice systems. He demanded that I give him the address for the federal courthouse. It dawned upon me that I was actually a court worker and not an impostor trying get away with traffic violations. The conversation quickly changed and I received a gentle warning. Before it was clear that he would write me a ticket.

This episode illustrates the unfair treatment that some police officers can show to their fellow law enforcement personnel. It had never occurred to me to use my status as law clerk in order to avoid a ticket. However, other employees of the court learned that such police behavior was not uncommon.

My case was obviously minor compared to Arbery’s. The latter situation was so serious that authorities took the unusual step to indict a prosecutor. Both stories highlight a wider problem: favoritism in law-enforcement.

Fairness be told, police and prosecutors don’t represent the only professions that favor insiders. These issues are also evident in my field as an academic. Law-enforcement favoritism can be particularly troublesome because it involves literally matters of life or death.

This problem is not easy to solve. People in the most advantageous position to punish perpetrators are often their fellow officers and prosecutors. Many of them are inclined to support their own. Law-enforcement favoritism can be a barrier to the problem’s alleviation. We must recognize that this problem is widespread and should consider possible solutions.