On Feb. 23, Gregory and Travis McMichael killed Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black jogger, in Satilla Shores in Brunswick, Georgia. After two months, a full video of the killing and a wave of public outrage, the men were finally arrested on May 7. The case will go to a grand jury, but only after the end of a statewide judicial emergency currently in effect until June 12.
The two-month delay is a failure of justice all on its own, but even more so because the case’s outcome is legitimately uncertain. Georgia’s laws allow open carry, citizen’s arrests and lethal force in self defense. That could very well give the McMichaels enough plausible deniability to walk free.
Regardless of what happens next, these laws must be repealed. We live in a state where three men felt empowered by the law to enact their vigilante justice against an innocent person. We can’t undo that, but we can — and must — prevent it from happening again.
According to the police report, Gregory McMichael suspected that Arbery was involved in several recent burglaries in the area, although only one burglary was reported to police between Jan. 1 and Feb. 23. On Jan. 1, a Smith & Wesson M&P 9 mm pistol was stolen from a pickup truck at the home of Travis McMichael.
Gregory McMichael, a retired investigator, told police that he saw Arbery “hauling ass” down Satilla Drive. In response to seeing a jogger do what joggers typically do, the McMichaels took a .357 Magnum and a shotgun and pursued Arbery in a white pickup truck.
The video, captured by William Bryan — a friend of the McMichaels who helped chase down Arbery — tells the rest of the story. The McMichaels cut off Arbery, and Travis, Gregory’s son, got out of the truck to confront him. They struggled over the shotgun, Travis fired three shots and Arbery died. He was unarmed, though the McMichaels believed he was because they claimed they saw Arbery with his hands down his pants “the other night,” according to the Feb. 23 police report.
Not only did police not make an arrest until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepped in, but the first two prosecutors assigned to the case — Jackie Johnson and George E. Barnhill — recused themselves because of professional connections to Gregory McMichael.
However, Barnhill wrote a letter to the Glynn County Police Department suggesting that the killing was legally justified in accordance with Georgia’s open carry and stand-your-ground laws, as well as a state code that a private citizen may arrest a suspect “upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” if the suspect is attempting to escape.
The McMichaels will likely try to use these laws as plausible deniability for a killing. Barnhill’s letter suggests that Arbery is the aggressor. This framing is absurd on its face, no matter the merit of the legal technicalities used to justify it. Ahmaud Arbery was chased, corralled and shot to death by armed men. They escalated the situation at every opportunity.
If Arbery’s killers walk free due to a web of laws that sanctify killing, then it will prove nothing except that the laws are unjust. Even if the McMichaels do go to prison, the mere possibility that they could legally harass and kill a man on mere suspicion of burglary is unacceptable.
If Georgia laws were not as they are, Ahmaud Arbery would likely have lived to see his 26th birthday today. Without citizen’s arrest, Gregory and Travis McMichael might not have attempted to detain Arbery. Without open carry, they might not have brought a Magnum .357 and a shotgun. Without stand-your-ground, they might have thought twice before shooting.
We cannot bring Ahmaud Arbery back from the dead, but we can push policymakers to remove the laws that provide flimsy justification for white people to murder black people on a whim.
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, Ahmaud Arbery's name was misspelled. The McMichaels' last name was also misspelled. These have since been corrected. The Red & Black regrets these errors.