“It was a lynching in broad daylight that would have been perfectly acceptable,” said Justin Hansford, law professor at Howard University. “If it hadn’t been for video footage and protests, these people would have walked without scot.”
Defense attorneys for the McMichaels argued their clients had a duty to protect their neighborhood and were within their legal right to detain Arbery, citing a Civil War-era citizen arrest law that was repealed earlier this year.
White men, suspecting Arbery of being behind a series of burglaries in the area, pursued him as he ran through Satilla Shores, a neighborhood outside of Brunswick, Georgia. On the day of the meeting, no one saw him do anything wrong and he was unarmed.
Still, a defense attorney told jurors Travis McMichael was justified in using lethal force because his client feared for his life when he and Arbery argued over the shotgun. McMichael said he was trying to avoid violence when he pointed the gun in Arbery’s direction as a “show of force” to “defuse” the situation.
The jury disbelieved him, condemning young McMichael on the most serious count: malicious murder, willful intent to kill someone.
“The accused have never witnessed a crime. They have no immediate knowledge of a crime. Mr. Arbery was not an abuser. He had committed no crime, ”said Ira Robbins, professor at American University Washington College of Law.
“There was no citizen arrest and therefore no self-defense. Instead, there was only one completely wrongful murder as a result of self-defense justice, ”Robbins said.
Outside the courthouse the day after the verdict, lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski was succinct.
“Today’s verdict was a fact-based verdict,” Dunikoski said. “The jury system works in this country and when you present the truth to people, and they can see it, they will do the right thing.”
The verdicts in Arbery’s murder trial come at a time of renewed focus on the nation’s justice system, in part thanks to a confluence of high-profile cases in three states highlighting divergent U.S. views on race , guns and civility. In the span of a week, juries across the country handed down verdicts in three headline-grabbing cases, all of which dealt with an aspect of white vigilantism.
On Tuesday, jurors in Virginia found the white nationalist organizers of the murderous 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville responsible for more than $ 25 million in damages.
A Wisconsin jury on Friday acquitted a white teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, of five counts, including intentional first degree murder, for shooting three white people, killing two of them. This episode took place during chaotic protests in Kenosha following the police shooting by a white officer of Jacob Blake, a black man, who survived but is paralyzed.
“Having these three trials at once reminds us that white vigilante violence is a big deal,” said Hansford, Howard law professor and director of the university’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. “Maybe Black Lives Matter was too focused on the police. “
Legal experts, politicians and activists, while praising the verdict in Arbery’s murder trial, cringe at how close this case is to not happening at all.
She also thanked community organizers for uttering Arbery’s name weeks before the arrests linked to his assassination.
“[T]he work of the local organizers + the Brunswick community should not have been so vital to achieving justice. Georgia must move forward with criminal justice reforms, not back down.
Arbery was killed on February 23, 2020, but his death did not become part of national consciousness until May, when Bryan’s video leaked and posted online. It was weeks before George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis by a white officer, which sparked national and international protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
Shortly after Arbery’s death, his relatives sounded the alarm that no arrests or charges had been filed weeks after he was shot. His family, activists and alleged race played a role in law enforcement’s initial reluctance to act.
It will take more than two months before local authorities ask the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to open a probe in the housing. Before that, two district attorneys recused themselves.
One such lawyer, former Brunswick Judicial District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who is white, was charged in September. She faces charges for allegedly ordering local law enforcement agencies not to arrest Travis McMichael and for “showing favor to Greg McMichael”, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Greg McMichael is a retired law enforcement officer in the region.
GBI arrested the McMichaels on May 7, two days after receiving the case. Two weeks later Bryan was arrested.
Melissa Redmon, a law professor at the University of Georgia, is not yet ready to draw major conclusions about the outcome of Arbery’s murder trial.
She sees many parallels with a case that took place almost ten years ago: the murder of Trayvon Martin.
“You have a similar situation where a white person confronts a black person who is trying to run away and excessive force is used and that person dies,” Redmon said.
“I think the key in this case has to be the video, because the cases are basically the same.”
She says that given all it took to get the Arbery case to trial, she hopes the public will focus more on all parts of the justice system, instead of focusing only on police reform.
“People need to pay attention to those in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors are elected, judges are elected, [but] most people don’t pay attention to judicial elections.
Georgia Eastern Circuit Judge Timothy Walmsley presided over the trial after the five judges of Glynn County recused themselves from the case.
Race hovered over trial proceedings from the start: from the almost all-white jury selection to the assertion of the defendants, lethal force was in order because they were afraid of an unarmed black man.
Defense lawyer Laura Hogue addressed the racial issue at the end of the trial, where she not only blamed Arbery for his own death, but also derisively described the dead man’s feet, causing audible gasps in the courtroom.
“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in her khaki shorts with no socks to cover her long dirty nails,” said lawyer Laura Hogue to jurors as she painted an image of Arbery as a repeated nocturnal intruder.
At one point during the trial, Kevin Gough, an attorney for Bryan, asked the judge to Black Pastors Bar in Courtroom Gallery, a request that was refused.
Legal proceedings for the McMichaels and Bryans do not end at the time of sentencing. All three still facing federal hate crime charges filed by the Department of Justice in April.
Hours after the verdict, Vice President Kamala Harris said she shared the grief felt by Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s parents. Harris, a former California attorney general, also singled out the defense team.
“These verdicts send an important message, but the fact remains that we still have work to do,” said Harris in a report. “The defense lawyer chose to set a tone that characterized the presence of ministers at the trial as intimidation and dehumanized a young black man with racist tropes. The jury arrived at its verdicts despite these tactics.
As Rittenhouse’s acquittal revealed obvious partisan divisions, with Conservatives touting him as a patriot and Liberals accusing the verdict of miscarriage of justice, the result of Arbery’s murder trail elicited a bipartisan sigh of relief. .
“The murder of Ahmaud Arbery – which the whole world witnessed on video – is a devastating reminder of the distance we must travel in the fight for racial justice in this country,” President Biden said. said in a press release.
“Although the guilty verdicts reflect that our justice system is doing its job, it is not enough. “
Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp echoed similar sentiments in a statement Wednesday.
“Ahmaud Arbery was the victim of a vigilante who has no place here in Georgia”, Kemp said, adding that he hopes all those who follow the Arbery affair “can now move forward on the road to healing and reconciliation.”
The US criminal justice system remains flawed, legal scholars say. But in a trial where race permeated legal proceedings, for once at least the justice system was not only blind, it was color blind.