Tom Durden, Georgia DA who ordered takeover of stalled Ahmaud Arbery investigation, dies at 66

Jul 28, 2023, 12:21 PM

District Attorney Tom Durden of Georgia's Atlantic Judicial Circuit speaks at a news conference, Ma...

District Attorney Tom Durden of Georgia's Atlantic Judicial Circuit speaks at a news conference, May 8, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia, about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Durden, the longtime prosecutor who won convictions in Georgia's infamous “tomato patch” killing and called in state investigators to build a case against the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery has died. Durden was 66. AP Photo/Russ Bynum)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Tom Durden, the Georgia district attorney who kick-started the prosecution of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing by calling in state investigators to take over the languishing case, has died at age 66.

The Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office, which Durden led for 24 years before stepping down last year, confirmed Durden’s death in a Facebook post Friday. No cause of death was given.

During his career of nearly four decades, Durden served briefly as the second outside prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the February 2020 killing of Arbery. The 25-year-old Black man was fatally shot as he ran from white men in pickup trucks who chased him through their Georgia neighborhood. The shooter said he fired in self-defense.

The case stalled without charges for more than two months before Durden asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over from local police. GBI agents rapidly made arrests that led to three murder convictions. Durden stepped aside soon after the arrests, saying the case needed a DA with a larger staff.

“He played a significant role, as we know the others before him did nothing,” said Thea Brooks, one of Arbery’s aunts. “No matter how long he had it on his desk, he did the right thing.”

Following Arbery’s killing outside the port city of Brunswick in 2020, the local district attorney recused herself and the first outside prosecutor assigned, George Barnhill, opposed bringing criminal charges before he stepped aside.

Georgia’s attorney general then appointed Durden, who had the case for roughly a month amid a growing outcry for arrests. Durden asked the GBI to get involved after cellphone video of the killing leaked online May 5, 2020.

Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael were arrested on murder charges the day after GBI agents arrived in Brunswick. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, was charged soon after.

“The fact that he sent it to the GBI was a positive turn in the case for us, and I think he deserves credit for it,” said the Rev. John Perry, who led Brunswick’s NAACP chapter at the time Arbery was killed.

The job of prosecuting the McMichaels and Bryan was passed to the district attorney for Cobb County in metro Atlanta. All three men were ultimately convicted of murder in 2021 and sentenced to life in prison.

Durden joined the district attorney’s office as an assistant prosecutor in 1984, two years after earning his law degree from Mercer University. He was elected DA after his predecessor retired in 1998.

Durden prosecuted hundreds of criminal cases in the Atlantic Circuit, which covers six southeast Georgia counties outside Savannah.

“Mr. Durden was a true public servant to the State of Georgia for close to 40 years,” Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said in a statement. “My sincerest condolences to Tom’s family.”

In 1998, Durden successfully prosecuted four family members and a friend in the killing of Thurmon Martin, a case that would become known as Georgia’s infamous “tomato patch” murder.

Martin, 64, was shot while sleeping in May 1997 and buried behind his home in rural Ludowici. The case gained notoriety for the tomato plants growing atop Martin’s grave, as well as the defendants’ harrowing courtroom accounts of being abused by the slain man.

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Tom Durden, Georgia DA who ordered takeover of stalled Ahmaud Arbery investigation, dies at 66