South Georgia’s Prosecutors: Say His Name and Me Too
South Georgia has a problem. Since at least 2015, when Savannah prosecutors could only secure low level, nonviolent convictions for staff in the Savannah jail for the brutal murder of Matthew Ajibade, Georgia prosecutors exercised their power to make sure fellow law enforcement received minor punishments for murder and attempted sexual assault. At the same time, they sent thousands of Black men into Georgia’s notoriously violent prison system, many for offenses related to their substance abuse disorders.
Say his name: Matthew Ajibade.
South Georgia’s prosecutor problem garnered worldwide attention when three of them could not arrest anyone for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The first one, Jackie Johnson, recused herself because one of the white murderers used to work for her as an investigator. Let that sink in: For three decades, Gregory McMichael worked in Glynn County, Georgia in law enforcement—including years as an investigator in Jackie Johnson’s office before he retired to avoid training requirements.
The next prosecutor to look at the case, George Barnhill, waited over a month before declaring that it was “perfectly legal” for the McMichaels’to shoot Ahmaud Arbery to death for jogging in a different neighborhood than where he lived. Barnhill too recused himself, because George McMichael’s son Travis, the trigger man in Ahmaud’s murder, also worked in law enforcement. Although the third South Georgia prosecutor to be assigned the matter, Ton Durden, promised to look at the case without “any preconceived” ideas by now the world knew South Georgia’s prosecutors could not be trusted. Georgia’s Attorney General appointed an Atlanta area prosecutor to the matter, and finally Greg and Travis McMichael were indicted for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
Say his name: Ahmaud Arbery.
A classic yet less deadly example of South Georgia’s prosecutor problem occurred in 2017, when a municipal prosecutor named Orlando Todd Pearson used his enormous power to attempt to coerce sex from a defendant before him. On February 28, 2017, Ms. Oriel Selver appeared in Springfield Municipal Court for traffic offenses. Pearson used his power to dismiss charges and reduce fines, in exchange for what he thought was going to be sex with Ms. Selver, and was only caught because Ms. Selver wore a wire for the Ga. Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to have him arrested.
Georgia prosecutors worked with Pearson to ensure he was permitted to plead guilty to one count of violation of oath by a public officer, and instead of jail or prison time he is participating in a diversion program, against the wishes of Ms. Selver. Worse, Ms. Selver is not permitted to review the prosecutor’s and GBI file. The deal permits Pearson to keep practicing law and hide his conviction from the public. All while Ms. Selver suffers extreme emotional distress and fears for her and her son’s safety.
Me Too: Oriel Selver.
The U.S. criminal justice system gives prosecutors tremendous power.
For too long, they have used that power to build a system of mass incarceration and racial injustice in size and scale like no other in the world. Because of protections created by our laws, holding them accountable has proven nearly impossible. Far too often, when convictions are overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct, the prosecutors are not held accountable.
The cases of Ahmaud Arbery and Oriel Selver are telling examples of the impunity enjoyed by most prosecutors in the face of misconduct charges. Prosecutors are largely immune from civil lawsuits, even when their misconduct results in years in prison, even on death row. Whether to charge a case, offer a plea deal, or request bail largely determines the outcome of a criminal case. With their unmatched powers, prosecutors have the ability to ruin lives, deepen racial disparities, and overcrowd prisons, and that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.
Luckily, there is heightened awareness of prosecutors’ role in perpetuating race-based divides through misconduct. In addition, a growing number of reform-minded prosecutors are committed to common sense reforms such as:
- abolishing money bail, an innately racist system of pretrial detention;
- declining to prosecute marijuana cases and other low-level crimes; and,
- exposing police misconduct.
Not surprisingly, many of these progressive prosecutors have faced harsh criticism and resistance from law enforcement, judges, and even governors, demonstrating just how deeply ingrained inequality is within the law and those who enforce it.
The age of reckoning for unjust prosecutors is upon us. Now is the time for people to seek justice and reparations for the victims of prosecutorial bias when the law has not. Without prosecutorial liability there can be no justice for Oriel Selver or Ahmaud Arbery, only grief, pain, and abuse of power.