From left to right: Travis McMichael, 35; Gregory McMichael, 65; and William Bryan, 52.
By Jamari Stanton, Opinions Editor
The three white men that chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, were convicted Wednesday, Nov. 24 on 23 of 27 counts, including felony, murder and false imprisonment, among other charges. During a routine jog through the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside of Brunswick, Ga., the defendants allegedly mistook Arbery for a burglar and pursued him with hopes of detaining him. Despite being unarmed and having no witness of committing a crime, Travis McMichael asserted that he was justified in slaying Arbery because he feared for his life when he and Arbery struggled over McMichael’s shotgun.
This case addressed the rights of private citizens to detain people who they believe are breaking the law, and the validity of self-defense claims resulting from failed vigilante efforts. Citizens’ arrest statutes are dangerous and irresponsible, permitting vigilantes to detain alleged criminals without the training required for law enforcement. Following the murder, Georgia lawmakers weakened the controversial statute that allows citizens’ arrests and passed the state’s first hate crimes law.
As a young Black man living in the South, Arbery’s murder resonates as he encountered the fate many of us fear. He went out for a jog and was hunted by men that didn’t see him commit a crime, yet claimed they felt obligated to detain him to protect their neighborhood.
For young Black men, simply exercising can be a crime and fighting for your life can mean a death sentence. Further, assailants will claim self-defense and portray you as someone you aren’t. From their testimony, it is apparent that these murderers felt so entitled to their pursuit that they were willing to risk their lives to catch an innocent, unarmed man.
Prior to the struggle that ended Arbery’s life, McMichael testified that he pointed his shotgun at Arbery to make him retreat.
“He had my gun,” McMichael said. “He struck me. It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would have gotten the shotgun from me, then this was a life or death situation, and I’m going to have to stop him from doing this so I shot.”
Already 1.5 miles into his jog, authorities say Arbery was chased and obstructed by the murderers for five minutes before the slaying. McMichael’s father, Greg McMichael, told police that Arbery was “trapped like a rat” and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan admitted to using his truck to repeatedly run Arbery off the road.
After five minutes of relentless pursuit, how can one allege that they were acting in self-defense? At any point, Bryan and the McMichaels could have stopped chasing him and Arbery would have survived the encounter. It is clear that the convicted killers were the aggressors and that Arbery’s death was an unjustifiable result of their actions.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones spoke to reporters outside of the courthouse, briefly addressing the danger in vigilantism.
“Mr. Travis McMichael killed my son all on assumptions,” Cooper-Jones said. “He didn’t know where Ahmaud was coming from or what Ahmaud had done. He just took actions into his own hands.”
Bryan and the McMichaels’ trial shed light on the flaws within the entire judicial process, rather than just policing. Although Arbery was killed on Feb. 23, 2020, the McMichaels were not arrested until May 7, two days after local authorities asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to review the case. Bryan was arrested in late May.
The murderers were free to live their lives until video of the encounter, caught on Bryan’s phone, was leaked and posted online. The video quickly spread, sparking national outcries for his killers to be held accountable. Prior to GBI involvement, two district attorneys, one of which former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, recused themselves.
Johnson was indicted in September for alleged misconduct on the day Arbery was killed. The indictment, for obstruction of a police officer, says she told two Glynn County police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael after the slaying. She is also charged for allegedly violating her oath of office in “showing favor and affection” to Greg McMichael, a retired law enforcement officer.
Despite the prosecutor’s assertions that many Black potential jurors were cut due to their race, the trial’s jury included nine white women, two white men, and only one Black man.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley of the Eastern Circuit of Georgia presided over the trial after all five judges in Glynn County recused themselves. He acknowledged that the jury selection appeared to be shaped by “intentional discrimination” by the defense attorneys, but Georgia law limited his authority to step in.
Breonna Taylor’s murder in her Louisville apartment on March 13, 2020, less than a month after Arbery was killed, showed the roles of actors other than police involved in the judicial process. Although no charges were brought forth for Breonna’s murder, the public witnessed the result of a flawed institution. Similarly, University of Georgia law professor Melissa Redmon hopes the Arbery case garners more public attention for the judicial system.
“People have to pay attention to the players in the criminal justice system,” Redmon said. “Prosecutors are elected, judges are elected, [but] most people don’t pay attention to judicial elections.”
The three murderers await sentencing and have an upcoming trial for federal hate crime charges in Arbery’s killing. A federal grand jury indicted each of them on one count of interference with civil rights and attempted kidnapping, alleging that the men “used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.” The trial date is set for Feb. 7.