Georgia’s attorney general has appointed a black district attorney to take over the case of a white father and son charged with killing a black man, making her the third outside prosecutor in a case that has prompted a national outcry over suspicions that race played a role in delaying arrests.
Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot on February 23 by the men who told police they chased him because they believed he matched the appearance of a burglary suspect caught on surveillance video.
Gregory McMichael and his son Travis were arrested last week, more than two months later, after video of the shooting appeared online and provoked outrage.
Federal prosecutors are also considering hate crimes charges, the Justice Department said, which would allow for a separate case in federal court.
Cobb County district attorney Joyette M Holmes is taking over the case from prosecutor Tom Durden, who the state’s attorney general said asked to be replaced by a prosecutor with a large staff as “this case has grown in size and magnitude”.
Ms Holmes is based in Atlanta, more than 300 miles from the coastal Georgia community in Glynn County where the shooting happened.
“District attorney Holmes is a respected attorney with experience, both as a lawyer and a judge,” said state attorney general Chris Carr, a Republican. “And the Cobb County District Attorney’s office has the resources, personnel and experience to lead this prosecution and ensure justice is done.”
Ms Holmes served for four years a magistrate judge in suburban Cobb County before governor Brian Kemp appointed her to fill the vacant district attorney’s position last July. According to the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys Council, she is one of only seven black district attorneys in the state.
A lawyer for Mr Arbery’s father Marcus applauded the appointment of a new lead prosecutor.
“In order for justice to be carried out both effectively and appropriately in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, it is imperative that the special prosecutor has no affiliation with the south-east Georgia legal or law enforcement communities,” Benjamin Crump said in a statement. He asked that Ms Holmes “be zealous in her search for justice”.
The McMichaels were not arrested until after the video became public and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was asked to look into the killing.
Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, have been jailed since Thursday on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault. The father is a former Glynn County police officer who later worked for 20 years as an investigator for the local district attorney’s office. He retired a year ago.
Glynn County district attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case because the elder McMichael had worked under her.
The first outside prosecutor appointed, district attorney George Barnhill of the neighbouring Waycross Judicial Circuit, stepped aside about a month later because his son works for Ms Johnson as an assistant prosecutor. Mr Durden got the case in mid-April.
Lawyers for Mr Arbery’s parents and others, including Mr Carr and the Southern Poverty Law Centre, have asked for a federal investigation to weigh whether hate crimes charges should be brought. Georgia has no hate crime law allowing state charges.
“We are assessing all of the evidence to determine whether federal hate crimes charges are appropriate,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement on Monday.
She said the department is also considering Mr Carr’s request for federal authorities to investigate how local police and prosecutors handled the case.
At the White House, President Donald Trump said he is following the case “very closely” and that Mr Arbery “looks like a wonderful young guy”.
“Certainly the video, it was a terrible looking video to me,” Mr Trump said. “But you have a lot of people looking at it and hopefully an answer’s going to be arrived at very quickly.”
The McMichaels told police they thought Mr Arbery matched the appearance of a burglary suspect who they said had been recorded on a surveillance camera some time before, according to the Glynn County police report filed after the shooting.
Mr Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, has said she thinks her son, a former high school American football player, was just jogging in the neighbourhood before he was killed.
The leaked video shows a black man running at a jogging pace. A truck is stopped in the road ahead of him, with one white man standing in the pickup’s bed and another beside the open driver’s door.
The running man attempts to pass the pickup on the passenger side, moving briefly outside the camera’s view. A gunshot sounds, and the video shows the running man grappling with a man over what appears to be a shotgun or rifle. A second shot can be heard, and the running man can be seen punching the other man.
A third shot is fired at point-blank range, then the running man staggers a few feet and falls face down.