Three white men have been found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger making his way through a suburban neighbourhood in Georgia last February, who they chased in their trucks before shooting and killing him.
The shooting, along with the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, helped inspire 2020’s mass racial injustice protests.
Gregory McMichael, his son Travis, and their neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan faced a total of nine state charges, including malice murder, felony murder, false imprisonment, aggravated assault with a 12-gauge shotgun, and aggravated assault with pickup trucks, after pursuing Mr Arbery, 25, through the community of Satilla Shores, near Brunswick, Georgia, on 23 February of last year. They pleaded not guilty on all charges.
Inside the courtroom, the Arbery family jumped, clapped, and cried out in celebration when the verdicts were announced. They have compared Ahmaud’s killing to a “modern-day lynching.”
They addressed the public from the courthouse steps later that day.
Mr Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones said, “I never thought this day would come — but God is good.”
“I don’t want to see no daddy watch their kid get lynched and shot down like that … Today is a good day,” added Marcus Arbery, Mr Arbery’s father. “All he wanted to do was run and dream.”
Republican and Democratic public officials and activists in Georgia and beyond celebrated the decision as an important civil rights milestone — and a sign that much work still needed to be done.
“Nothing can ever assuage the loss of Ahmaud Arbery for his parents and loved ones, and the work of local organizers [and] the Brunswick community should not have been so vital to securing justice,” wrote Democrat and Georgia-based voting rights activist Stacey Abrams on Twitter on Wednesday, adding, “Georgia must move forward on criminal justice reforms — not retreat.”
Georgia governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, said in a statement that “Ahmaud Arbery was the victim of a vigilantism that has no place in Georgia.”
“As legal efforts continue to hold accountable all who may be responsible, we hope the Arbery family, the Brunswick community, our state, and those around the nation who have been following his case can now move forward down a path of healing and reconciliation,” he added.
Outrage over Ahmaud Arbery’s killing inspired the state to repeal a Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law last May. A defence attorney for one of the men maintained they had acted in self-defence.
“We felt from day one, that the video showed that Travis McMichael acted in self-defence,” Robert Rubin, Travis McMichael’s lawyer, said outside the courthouse on Wednesday. “Obviously the jury felt very differently than we did, and maybe we had our own little tunnel vision going. I always thought the video was helpful to us, just as Greg McMichael said at the very moment it happened.”
The 12-person jury — 11 of whom were white — began deliberations on Tuesday in Glynn County, Georgia, and considered the charges for more than 10 hours, before handing back a varied final decision.
Travis McMichael, the man who engaged in a physically confrontation with then shot Mr Arbery, was found guilty on all nine counts.
Gregory McMichael, who rode in the same truck as his son Travis, where the men were armed with a pistol and a shotgun, was found not guilty of malice murder, but guilty on all other counts.
Bryan, their neighbour, who joined the pursuit in his own truck and filmed the encounter on his phone, was found not guilty of malice murder and one count of felony murder, while being held guilty on three other counts of felony murder and three other charges.
In addition to the state charges, which could carry up to life in prison, the men will face a federal hate crimes trial for the killing in February of 2022.
The trio set off after Mr Arbery claiming to be attempting a citizen’s arrest because they believed he was responsible for a number of recent break-ins in the neighbourhood. Over the course of the trial, it was revealed that the McMichaels in fact had been warned Mr Arbery wasn’t accused of any crimes.
“I don’t think the guy has actually stolen anything out of there,” Gregory McMichael told investigators after the shooting, referring to a house under construction in the area, where Mr Arbery had been filmed on security cameras multiple times wandering the grounds.
Police warned the men before the shooting that Mr Arbery wasn’t accused of taking anything from the home.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that the killing was unnecessary and motivated by racial prejudice.
“They made their decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery in their driveways because he was a Black man running down the street,” Senior Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski told the jury at one point, arguing the men pursued Mr Arbery “not because he’s a threat to them, but because he wouldn’t stop and talk to them.”
The men also told police that Mr Arbery was “trapped like a rat” as they chased him, and that Travis McMichael called him a “f***ing n****r” as he stood over Mr Arbery’s dying body, according to Mr Bryan’s statements to investigators.
“There is no question that race is a central part of this case and has been from the very beginning,” Brandon Buskey, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, told The Independent.
The McMichaels and Bryan, meanwhile, argued they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest using a slavery-era Georgia law, and that they had a “gut feeling” Mr Arbery was responsible for break-ins in the area, even though there were no reports of break-ins in the neighbourhood during the seven weeks prior to the shooting.
Travis McMichael said he came “face-to-face” with Mr Arbery during one of the young man’s visits to the vacant home, and interpreted the 25-year-old putting his hand into his pocket as a sign he was armed. (Mr Arbery was unarmed when he was shot and killed.)
McMichael said his training in the US Coast Guard had taught him to “get compliance” by using guns to “de-escalate the situation.”
During the trial, McMichael teared up as he described the shooting, saying he was “was thinking of my son” when he opened fire three times.
“I shot. He had my gun. He struck me. It was obvious that he was attacking me, if he would have gotten the shotgun from me, it was a life or death situation,” he said.
Though civil rights advocates cheered the outcome in this case, this result was anything but guaranteed.
Local police didn’t make any arrests in the case for three months. Body camera footage later released to the public shows the first officer on the scene ignoring Mr Arbery, still clearly alive and lying on the ground in pain, and instead speaking with the McMichaels and Bryan. A second officer on the scene eventually arrived and pronounced the jogger dead. None of the men were detained.
In May, video of the men chasing Mr Arbery in their trucks leaked to the public, prompting the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over the case and resulting in arrests shortly thereafter.
In addition to the state and federal charges against the McMichaels and Bryan, a former Georgia prosecutor initially involved in the case was indicted in September on charges of misconduct for showing “favour and affection” towards Greg McMichael, who had worked as an investigator in her office until 2019, including by initially ordering against arresting his son Travis.
The decision to charge the men for murder in the Arbery case comes the week after a controversial ruling acquitting Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager charged with murder for shooting three people at a Wisconsin racial justice protest last August.