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Many people, including his family, have proclaimed that justice was served with the guilty verdicts in the case of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
The three men who chased down Arbery, an unarmed black man who was jogging through a mostly white neighborhood in Georgia, were found guilty of numerous murder and assault charges last week. All three face minimum sentences of life in prison.
The three white men were essentially acting as vigilantes when they chased down and shot Arbery because they said they believed he was involved in neighborhood burglaries. They said they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest but that Arbery violently attacked them. The jury disagreed.
We must remember that the trial of William Bryan, Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael was not a foregone conclusion.
The men were not arrested after police arrived on the scene and found Arbery in the street, covered in blood. No charges had been brought two months after Arbery’s February 2020 death.
“The men who killed Ahmaud Arbery will not get away with it. Yet the most surprising aspect of the trial is not the verdict, but the fact that the trial happened at all,” Adam Serwer wrote in a Nov. 24 article in The Atlantic.
That’s because local law enforcement officials initially sided with the three men, who chased down and cornered Abery with their pickup trucks. They argued — without much evidence — that Arbery was responsible for some neighborhood robberies and that they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest.
This logic was so faulty that Georgia lawmakers have since rewritten and narrowed the state’s citizen arrest law.
Yet, it was the logic that was first used by Glynn County officials. Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson allegedly prevented police from arresting the three men. Although she recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, had been an investigator in her office, she was later indicted for her actions in the case. That indictment came last week on a charge of violating her oath by showing “favor and affection” to Gregory McMichael and on a charge of obstruction for telling two police officers on the day of the shooting not to arrest Travis McMichael.
Johnson handed the case off to Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill. Barnhill also recused himself from the case because his son worked in the Brunswick district attorney’s office.
In a memo he wrote before handing over the case, Barnhill asserted that the three men had committed a lawful citizen’s arrest and killed Arbery in self-defense. He blamed Arbery for his own death, citing his prior record to explain his “aggressive nature.”
After this second recusal, the Georgia attorney general’s office assigned the case to a new prosecutor, Atlantic Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden, who said he would present the case to a grand jury, but that the process was delayed by the COVID pandemic. He did not have the men arrested.
Then, in May, video of the incident was shared with the media by a local defense attorney who had consulted with the men involved in the shooting. The video was shot by Bryan as the McMichaels cornered and shot Arbery.
The outcry over the video was immediate.
Within days, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had taken over the case and the McMichaels were arrested. Bryan was arrested two weeks later.
Another video, from a security camera inside a house that was under construction in the Santilla Shores neighborhood where the McMichaels and Bryan lived, showed that Arbery, and many others, walked through the construction site. He does not take anything from the house in the video footage, contradicting the defendants’ claims that they knew Arbery had stolen things.
Before reaching its verdict, the jury in the Arbery case asked to review the video of Arbery’s killing. They watched it three more times, the New York Times reported.
Like the bystander video in the murder of George Floyd, this type of visual evidence can play a large role in jury decisions.
However, it shouldn’t take public viewing of stark video evidence to compel law enforcement officials and prosecutors to do their jobs.