How a long-shot candidate tossed out the DA accused of mishandling the Ahmaud Arbery case

Keith Higgins campaigns on Election Day on St. Simons Island, Georgia, in his race for district attorney.

(CNN)Keith Higgins knew he faced long odds when he entered the race.

It's hard to run as an independent candidate in Georgia. It's even harder in a small community, when you're running against someone who's been top prosecutor in the area for about a decade.
A year ago it seemed like Higgins' campaign for district attorney of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit had stalled without even getting off the ground.
Then came a case that drew national attention and protests to this conservative corner of southeast Georgia. And everything changed.
    In February, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was jogging in a waterfront neighborhood near Brunswick when a former police officer and his son, both White, chased him down and shot and killed him. Critics accused Jackie Johnson, the district attorney, of mishandling the investigation before she recused herself over a conflict of interest.
    Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson campaigns for reelection on Nov. 3 on St. Simons Island, Georgia.
    Higgins, who was fired by Johnson years ago when he was an assistant prosecutor in her office, says he'd seen her mishandle cases before. It's one of the reasons he decided to run against her.
    "Because of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a lot of people started looking for ways to effect positive change in the justice system," he said. "And as they were looking for ways to do that, they ... realized that I was running for district attorney."
    Here's how Higgins scrounged together more than 8,000 signatures to get his name on the ballot and upset an incumbent Republican in a conservative part of Georgia.

    A series of controversial cases

    In a judicial circuit as small as Brunswick, people don't typically run against the incumbent district attorney -- let alone win.
    That's according to Page Pate, a criminal defense attorney who practices in the area.
    The Brunswick judicial circuit covers five counties in southeast Georgia, most of them rural, with a combined population of about 200,000. Only a handful of lawyers practice in the circuit, so in legal circles everybody knows everybody. Mounting a challenge against the top prosecutor is sure to make that person's job a lot harder.
    So to understand how Higgins was able to pull off his unlikely victory you have to consider a series of cases that made Johnson the object of criticism.
    "It took not just one scandal, not even two scandals, but several scandals and then something as huge as the Ahmaud Arbery case to actually force a change in that office," Page said.
    It started 10 years ago with a 35-year-old woman named Caroline Small.
    On June 18, 2010, Small was shot and killed by two officers in Brunswick after leading police on an erratic, low-speed car chase.
    Caroline Small and her mother Karen McGehee.
    Shortly after the shooting, Johnson -- then a prosecutor in neighboring Camden County -- announced she was seeking to become district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. She was appointed to the position in August 2010, putting herself in charge of the Small case. And she went on to win election unopposed later that year.
    The case didn't come before a grand jury until 2011, when jurors found the shooting was justified and cleared both officers involved of wrongdoing.
    But a 2015 investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and CNN affiliate WSB-TV found that Johnson's office shared the prosecution's evidence with the officers about two months before the grand jury met. She also made an unconventional bargain with the officers, agreeing not to offer an indictment for jurors to consider unless they asked, the news organizations found.
    Johnson's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about this story.
    Jackie Johnson, the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. She recently lost re-election to Keith Higgins, a former assistant DA in her office.
    Then in 2018, one of the officers involved in Small's shooting was arrested for domestic violence after allegedly harassing his estranged wife and threatening to kill her, according to CNN affiliate WSB-TV. The officer was released on bond.
    Days later, he was arrested again after an armed standoff with officers, the AJC reported. Again, he was released on bond despite violating bond the first time.
    The AJC later reported that Johnson's office did not allow a key witness to testify at the officer's bond hearing, raising further questions about whether the officer was receiving preferential treatment from the district attorney's office.
    Weeks later, that officer killed his wife and one of her friends before taking his own life. Advocates for Small and her family said his record should have raised alarms for prosecutors and police much earlier.

    Higgins launches an underdog campaign

    In August 2019, Higgins decided to challenge Johnson.
    The two weren't strangers. Higgins had spent years as an assistant district attorney in the circuit, including for a time under Johnson. She had fired him after he challenged her decision not to prosecute the officers in the Small case, according to the AJC.
    In the years since, Higgins said he had seen enough.
    "I saw the need for some changes to be made so that everybody would be treated equally fair regardless of who they are or who they know," said Higgins, who most recently has been working in private practice as a criminal justice attorney. "I was aware of a couple of high-profile cases that, in my opinion, had been mishandled."
    Higgins, 61, was raised in Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, and served seven years in the Marine Corps Reserve. But most of his adult life has been spent in Glynn County, home to Brunswick and where he and his wife raised four children.
    "I've seen the criminal justice system operate from both the view of the victim and also from the view of the accused," Higgins said. "I think that helps me to identify problems that need to be corrected in the system so that there can be a fairness for everybody."
    He decided to run as an independent candidate because of his view that "the district attorney should be nonpartisan" -- though he said he leans conservative. Under Georgia law, that meant he would have to collect more than 5,000 signatures to appear on the ballot. (A federal court ruling later reduced that number to more than 3,000 signatures.)
    A mural of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, where the 25-year-old was shot and killed in February.
    Higgins said his campaign had gathered less than 1,500 signatures before the coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down their operations in mid-March.
    Then in May, video surfaced showing