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Cobb County, Georgia, District Attorney Joyette Holmes is a proud conservative. When she ran for Chief Magistrate Judge in 2016, she stated on her campaign Facebook page that the position should not be political, but she nonetheless shared her political views.

“As a conservative, I believe in strict adherence to the Constitution and our laws. I believe that taxpayer dollars should be spent wisely and efficiently. And I believe that the number one priority of government is to protect our families,” Holmes wrote.

Now, she has the opportunity to seek justice for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, the young Black jogger who had no protection when he was gunned down by white vigilantes near Brunswick, Georgia in February. Holmes is the fourth prosecutor assigned to a case that has sparked a national outcry over the brutality of Arbery’s killing, the initial inaction of local law enforcement, and the racism apparent in both.

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While much fanfare has been dedicated to DA Holmes breaking demographic barriers in Atlanta’s suburbs—she is the first African-American woman to hold her position—there’s been less attention on Holmes’s record and beliefs, and how they might affect justice for Mr. Arbery.

The search for an impartial prosecutor

On February 23, 2020, Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American man, was out for a jog in the Satilla Shores subdivision, a mostly white area. He lived across a four-lane highway in a traditionally Black community named Fancy Bluff. When Satilla Shores resident Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, saw Arbery, they jumped in their truck with guns and pursued him. The McMichaels claimed they followed Arbery because they suspected him of committing a string of area burglaries, though there’s no evidence to substantiate their suspicion. A third man, William Bryan Jr. was also involved. He drove behind Arbery while recording a video that shows the young man corralled between the two vehicles when Travis shot him multiple times.

Holmes is the fourth prosecutor assigned to a case that has sparked a national outcry over the brutality of Arbery’s killing, the initial inaction of local law enforcement, and the racism apparent in both.

More than two months passed before the McMichaels were arrested because Gregory was a retired police officer and local District Attorney Investigator whose former colleagues were reluctant to charge him. Bryan was arrested May 22.

Glynn County DA Jackie Johnson was originally supposed to handle the case. However, she quickly brought in Ware County DA George Barnhill to review it, chafing several Glynn County commissioners. Two commissioners also claimed that DA Johnson instructed the police not to arrest the McMichaels, which Johnson denies. DA Barnhill, already controversial for his dogged efforts to accuse a Black grandmother of voter fraud, claimed that the McMichaels acted in self-defense and that Arbery “fit the description” of a burglary suspect. 

After trying to find a DA who was not ethically barred, Georgia Attorney General Christopher M. Carr finally settled on Joyette Holmes, the newly appointed Cobb County DA. Holmes conceded that she had previously worked with Greg McMichael on a highly publicized hot-car death case, but claimed there “has been no continuing relationship” with him.

Holmes’ history

Even though Holmes’ ties to McMichael are minimal, she’s not a stranger to the good-old-boy network that has so far worked in his favor. In 2019, Holmes was appointed by Governor Brian Kemp to replace her old boss, Vic Reynolds, after he was tapped to become the Director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Her appointment appeared to be part of Kemp’s strategy to forestall the progressive prosecutor movement from gaining a foothold in Georgia

Holmes first became a Cobb County prosecutor in 2013, but left two years later to become the appointed Chief Magistrate Judge. A look at her track record as a prosecutor raises concerns about how she’ll handle the Arbery case.

Even though Holmes’ ties to McMichael are minimal, she’s not a stranger to the good-old-boy network that has so far worked in his favor.

Holmes was on the appellate team that defended the murder conviction of Damian McElrath, a mentally ill man who admitted to stabbing his mother to death. Cobb County prosecutors initially landed a murder conviction in 2017, but there were serious legal questions as to its legitimacy. In 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court threw McElrath’s conviction out, because the jury judged McElrath both guilty and not guilty of the same offense. The jury found the man not guilty of malice murder by reason of insanity. But on another charge, felony murder, the jury ruled that he was guilty but mentally ill. Holmes should have simply retried McElrath, since the fatal flaw in his conviction was predictable given prior decisions from Georgia’s courts.

In State v. Watson, a case in progress, Holmes tried to convince the Georgia Court of Appeals to let her tell a jury about Patrick Watson’s old theft convictions in a present armed robbery prosecution. The problem was that Watson was not at the scene; other defendants were found, then tried to pin the crime on him.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge’s decision to keep his old convictions out. Judge Sara Doyle wrote in her decision that “admission of the evidence would create the risk that the jury would convict Watson based on his propensity for theft and bad character,” which had too high a risk of a guilty verdict being issued on something other than the facts of the case. In essence, Holmes unsuccessfully tried to take an unjustified shortcut.

It doesn’t bode well that Holmes has shown a tendency to try questionable tactics that have undermined her cases.

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Then there’s the case of Robert Ray Whipkey, who was convicted of a series of rapes against teenage girls. In 2014, he received four consecutive life sentences plus 60 years in prison for his crimes. During that prosecution, former DA Reynolds discovered that Whipkey previously fibbed his way into a first-time offender program, which allowed him to get a drug charge dismissed after three years of probation. (Whipkey had a prior drug conviction in Alabama.) Instead of just resting easy that Whipkey was in prison for life, Reynolds’ deputies had a different judge reissue Whipkey’s conviction for the second drug offense in 2014.

However, the Whipkey saga did not end there. After DA Holmes took office, she continued to fight his appeals of the drug conviction. The Court of Appeals then ruled once more against Holmes, since the new judge did not have jurisdiction over her motion. Instead of wasting time and money on a insignificant technicality, Holmes could have been using her resources to address, as one example, Cobb County’s low arrest and prosecution rate for rape.

Holmes’ case will have to be airtight—and her commitment with the public good, not her political affiliates—to win justice for Ahmaud Arbery.

It doesn’t bode well that Holmes has shown a tendency to try questionable tactics that have undermined her cases. The Arbery case has already drawn comparisons to Trayvon Martin’s 2012 slaying by George Zimmerman. Despite widespread belief of Zimmerman’s guilt, the prosecutor assigned to that case, the notoriously punitive Angela Corey, failed to obtain a homicide conviction against him. Corey had a 94 percent conviction rate overall, showing that even the most zealous prosecutors are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to convincing a jury that white men (and men who are perceived as white) who ruthlessly kill Black people are guilty. It doesn’t help that Ware County DA Barnhill, one of Holmes’ peers, gave media statements trying to exculpate the perpetrators.

Holmes’ case will have to be airtight—and her commitment with the public good, not her political affiliates—to win justice for Ahmaud Arbery.

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Rory Fleming

Rory Fleming is an attorney and former legal fellow at the Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project. He has consulted on various political campaigns for top local prosecutor in many of the nation’s largest jurisdictions, including San Francisco and San Diego County in California, Queens in New York, Suffolk County (Boston) in Massachusetts, and Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) in North Carolina.