DOJ to consider possible federal hate crime charges in Ahmaud Arbery shooting

Georgia's top prosecutor also appointed another district attorney — the fourth since Arbery's death — to take over the case.

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By Erik Ortiz and Pete Williams

The Department of Justice said Monday it will consider a request by Georgia's attorney general to review the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery and assess whether federal hate crime charges should be pursued in the high-profile case.

The federal government's further involvement would underscore a larger demand by Arbery's family and civil rights groups for another law enforcement agency to closely examine the handling of the case since Arbery was killed on Feb. 23. Also on Monday, the state's top prosecutor, Chris Carr, appointed a new district attorney — the fourth since Arbery's death — to take over the case.

Arbery, 25, who was black, was shot to death after being chased by white men in a pickup truck who told police they believed he had burglarized a home in their coastal community of Brunswick. Arbery's family said he was unarmed and jogging at the time of his death.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the agency has asked Carr to forward any information related to the case. Georgia does not have a state hate crime law.

"We will continue to assess all information, and we will take any appropriate action that is warranted by the facts and the law," Kupec said.

Carr asked for federal assistance on Sunday, saying in a statement that local prosecutors had never informed his office that they had advised police on whether Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, should be arrested in connection to Arbery's death.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation moved to arrest the men late Thursday on charges of felony aggravated assault and murder after a video of the shooting was leaked.

A third man, a neighbor of the McMichaels', is also under investigation for his role in making the video, state investigators said Friday.

"We are committed to a complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset," Carr said Sunday. "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."

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Criticism over how local law enforcement handled the case persisted for weeks after no arrests were made.

The first prosecutor on the case, Jackie Johnson, of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, recused herself because of ties with Gregory McMichael, who was an investigator in her office before he retired in May 2019.

Then, a second prosecutor, George Barnhill, also recused himself in April after it was revealed that his son works in the district attorney's office in Brunswick, where Gregory McMichael was employed.

Barnhill defended the McMichaels in a letter in April to a police captain, writing they had "solid first hand probable cause" to chase after Arbery, a "burglary suspect," and to stop him. Barnhill also said that after watching the video of the incident, "given the fact Arbery initiated the fight" and grabbed the shotgun, Travis McMichael "was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself" under Georgia law.

NBC News does not know what occurred before the events shown in the leaked video.

New surveillance videos being reviewed by investigators appear to show Arbery entering a construction site of an unoccupied home on the McMichaels' block just before he was chased and killed. Attorneys for his family say the videos only show he was "trespassing at most," and not engaged in other criminal activity.

In a statement Sunday, lawyers for Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, called prosecutors' handling of the case a "potential cover-up" and said they hoped the Justice Department would conduct a comprehensive investigation.

"There are far too many questions about how this case was handled and why it took 74 days for two of the killers to be arrested and charged in Mr. Arbery's death," the attorneys said.

District Attorney Thomas Durden in Liberty County received the case after Barnhill stepped down, and asked state investigators last week for their help.

On Monday, Carr turned the case over to yet another prosecutor, District Attorney Joyette Holmes of the Cobb County Judicial Circuit, who is now the fourth to oversee it.

Carr told NBC News that after reviewing the video of Arbery's shooting he was "stunned" and "sickened by it," and that bringing on a new prosecutor whose office can handle the "scope and magnitude" of the case makes the most sense.

Holmes has "been a prosecutor, she's been a defense attorney and she's also been a judge. And so, the most important thing is that we swiftly, transparently and thoroughly get to a point where justice is done," Carr said.

Part of an investigation, he added, needs to determine why previous district attorneys in the case never told him that their offices had conflicts that should have precluded their involvement.

"It would appear from what we have looked into, what we have seen, that that did not happen in this particular case, and we need to know why," Carr said.

Attorneys for Arbery's family said they had requested Carr find a replacement for Durden "because the south Georgia prosecutorial community was tainted by the delay in action prior to the video being released," adding that Holmes and Cooper-Jones have spoken and they are "cautiously optimistic about this turn of events."

Durden could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Blayne Alexander contributed.