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 the February 23 fatal shooting of Arbery, whose death prompted local protests and national outrage. The case brought more scrutiny to the actions of the district attorney’s office and the potential need for change, Pate said.

Soon people were knocking on Higgins’ door, wanting to sign the petition to get him on the ballot and asking how they could help his campaign.

“I couldn’t answer my phone fast enough,” he said.

By September, Higgins had collected more than 8,500 signatures – well past the threshold he needed.

Questions grow about the Arbery case

It would be more than two months from the time of Arbery’s death before Gregory McMichael, 64, a former Glynn County cop and district attorney investigator, and his 34-year-old son, Travis McMichael, were arrested in connection with his killing.

Both men have pleaded not guilty to malice and felony murder charges, and counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

Johnson recused herself from the case within days after Arbery was shot, citing Gregory’s McMichael’s 20 years as an investigator in her office. Local officials alleged she told police not to make an arrest, which Johnson has denied.

Shortly after the shooting, Gregory McMichael called Johnson, his former boss, from the crime scene, a Georgia prosecutor said at a bond hearing on Nov. 13.

“Jackie, this is Greg,” the elder McMichael is heard saying in the voicemail. “Could you call me as soon as you possibly can? My (inaudible) and I been involved in a shooting and I need some advice right away. Could you please call me, as soon as you possibly can? Thanks. Bye.”

Johnson asked a district attorney in another circuit, Waycross DA George Barnhill, to come advise police the day after Arbery’s death. In doing so, she ignored state guidelines on handling conflicts of interest, according to the AJC. The guidelines stipulate that she should have immediately turned the case over to Georgia’s attorney general.

Instead, the AJC reported, Johnson waited three days after the shooting before disclosing her conflict to the attorney general, by which time Barnhill had formed an opinion about the case.

In an October 20 campaign debate, Johnson pushed back on criticisms that her office acted inappropriately.

“We did what we were supposed to,” she said. “The lack of trust has been the result of people with an agenda who have exploited this case and divided our community for their own purposes.”

The attorney general’s office appointed Barnhill as the prosecutor in the Arbery case.

Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, told CNN this week that after she spoke to Barnhill on the phone, she looked at his Facebook profile and discovered he was “friends” with Gregory McMichael and Jackie Johnson. She said she also came across a profile of someone with the last name of Barnhill who worked in Johnson’s office.

Cooper-Jones said she raised concerns about the apparent conflict of interest to the victim advocate in Barnhill’s office as well as the state attorney general’s office.

Eventually, Barnhill ended up recusing himself too, revealing to the attorney general’s office on April 7 that his son was a prosecutor in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit DA’s office and once worked with Gregory McMichael in a previous prosecution of Arbery.

Ahmaud Arbery's aunt Theawanza Brooks, center left, joins family members and supporters for a march in Glynn County on May 16 after a rally to protest his shooting.

Before he did, Barnhill wrote in a letter to police that he believed the McMichaels were within their rights to execute a citizen’s arrest of Arbery, adding that Travis McMichael would have been allowed to use “deadly force” to protect himself as he and Arbery struggled over a shotgun.

“I often sit back down and think back that I didn’t really realize how bad this case was,” Cooper-Jones said. “… People were getting ready to actually justify the killing of Ahmaud and close the case, but I just thank God that I was able to stay on it, make phone calls and God was on our side.”

Barnhill’s office has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

The state attorney general’s office said it was not aware of the connection when it appointed Barnhill.

It requested that the US Department of Justice and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation look into the handling of the case, including “communications and discussions” between Johnson and Barnhill.

The Justice Department referred CNN to its statement in May saying that it was considering the attorney general’s request. GBI told CNN it has completed its investigation and submitted its findings to Attorney General Chris Carr’s office, which says the matter remains active.

How Higgins won

On November 4, election results showed Higgins beat Johnson easily, collecting two-thirds of the vote.

His win reflected a statewide trend. Georgia voters ousted at least eight incumbent district attorneys, including in five of the state’s biggest cities. Seven others are retiring, meaning there will soon be 15 new chief prosecutors in Georgia’s 49 judicial circuits – a level of turnover experts in the state say they haven’t seen before.

Those outcomes – and Higgins’ victory especially – speak to an increased scrutiny on prosecutors in recent months and a broader shift in what the public expects of them, said Pete Skandalakis, executive director for the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

The win was humbling, Higgins said.

“People came forward to help get me on the ballot so that there would be a choice,” he said. “Then people continued to help me get elected after that. They basically have placed their hope in me that I will effect that positive change that they are seeking.”

Despite the odds, community leaders say they aren’t surprised that Higgins pulled it off.

A group of protesters shout at two Cobb County investigators outside the Glynn County Courthouse during a June 4 preliminary hearing for the suspects in Arbery's shooting.

Zerik Samples, then the chief development officer of the Coastal Georgia Area Community Action Authority, said he attended few community events where Higgins or someone from his campaign weren’t also there.

Higgins showed up to a chili cook-off put on by the local Rotary Club early in the year. He was at a First Friday event. He was even scheduled to attend a step show put on by a historically Black fraternity before it got canceled because of the pandemic.

“He talked to everybody,” said Pate, the Brunswick lawyer. “He talked to the minority community. He talked to people in the smaller counties who had not been really listened to in the past. And he reached out to Republicans, Democrats, independents.”

Johnson took a much different tack, emblazoning “Vote Republican” on her campaign signs, according to Pate.

Residents will have to wait until Higgins takes office in 2021 to see whether he delivers the kind of change he has promised. The way he ran his campaign has some people hopeful.

“We’ll see,” Pate said. “I’m optimistic that he will.”

But Samples said the scrutiny on the region’s top prosecutor won’t be letting up any time soon.

“I look forward to holding Keith Higgins’ feet to the fire,” he said.

Because if there is one takeaway from Higgins’ victory, it’s that residents want more from the official they elected to deliver justice.

What they want is fairness, transparency and accountability.

CNN’s Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.