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Ahmaud Arbery's mother accuses officials of 'vast cover-up' in lawsuit

Ahmaud Arbery's mother said police and prosecutors conspired to cover up her son's murder and protect the men accused in his death.
Jasmine Arbery, sister of Ahmaud Arbery, right, and Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud's mother, comfort one another while people gather to honor Ahmaud at Sidney Lanier Park on May 9, 2020 in Brunswick, Ga.Sean Rayford / Getty Images file

Ahmaud Arbery's mother filed a federal civil suit Tuesday alleging that police in Glynn County, Georgia, and two local prosecutors conspired to cover up Arbery's murder and protect the men involved in his death.

The suit seeks $1 million in damages and claims that the police department and officials with the Brunswick County District Attorney's Office worked together to paint Arbery as a violent criminal and absolve Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William Bryan of wrongdoing.

"There existed a vast conspiracy between law enforcement officials and agencies not only in covering up evidence to arrest Ahmaud's killers, but also covering up evidence that would directly implicate law enforcement in the murder," read a statement from Lee Merritt, the attorney for Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper.

Arbery, 25, was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020, when, authorities say, he stopped to check out a house that was under construction. The McMichaels, who were armed, followed him, and Travis Michael is accused of shooting him. The McMichaels told police that they thought Arbery was a burglar and that Travis McMichael shot him after Arbery "violently attacked." Bryan is alleged to have joined the McMichaels to help trap Arbery, according to the Glynn County police report. Bryan recorded the killing.

"The cover-up of Ahmaud's murder began the moment that uniformed Glynn Police Department personnel arrived at the crime scene," the suit says.

The men were not arrested when police arrived. That, the suit alleges, was part of privileges given to the McMichaels thanks to Gregory's deep connections with Glynn County police and the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office.

The Brunswick News reported that Gregory was a police officer there for seven years and an investigator with the district attorney's office for decades. In the months beforehand, Glynn County police Officer Robert Rash, who is also named in the suit, had given Gregory permission to act as law enforcement in guarding a nearby home under construction, according to the complaint. The complaint alleges that the father-son duo believed that they were acting "on behalf and under the cover of Glynn County police."

According to the civil suit, they were. Jackie Johnson, who was district attorney at the time, quickly got involved to help Gregory, her former colleague and friend of many years, the suit alleges. Johnson, who is also named in the suit, is alleged to have told police in the days after the shooting that there was "no need to arrest the McMichaels," according to reports and the civil suit. Instead, she tapped another defendant, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, to take over the case — and the alleged cover-up — once she recused herself, according to the civil suit.

"Defendant Barnhill further ratified Defendants Gregory McMichael's, Travis McMichael's, and Bryan's illegal and unconstitutional conduct by providing false information ... stating he had 'video of Arbery burglarizing a home immediately preceding the chase and confrontation,'" the suit alleges.

The alleged video has never been produced. However, video obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the day of Arbery's death showed a person matching Arbery's description walking up to a house under construction and briefly entering before continuing on his way. Attorneys for Arbery's family said in a statement then that the person was on the property for under three minutes, adding that "Ahmaud did not take anything from the construction site. He did not cause any damage to the property."

It would be months before disturbing video of Arbery's death would be made public and fuel a summer of protests combatting racist violence.

"If not for the video of Ahmaud's killing being released, the Glynn County Police Department, Rash, Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, Bryan, Johnson, and Barnhill would have successfully conspired to deprive Ahmaud of his constitutional rights," the suit says.

The McMichaels and Bryan were later arrested, and, in June, a grand jury indicted all three on suspicion of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. All three pleaded not guilty and were denied bail.

Several police officers, as well as Glynn County, are named in the suit. NBC News has reached out to the defendants named in the case for comment.

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