The killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black jogger in Georgia, explained

The three white men arrested in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery — an unarmed black man who was attacked while jogging — were indicted on murder charges Wednesday by a grand jury in Georgia.

Arbery was killed on February 23, when Gregory McMichael, 64, a retired district attorney investigator and police detective, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, armed themselves and followed him in a pickup truck after seeing him jog by. They later told police officers they believed Arbery to be a suspect in two burglaries in the Satilla Shores area.

The McMichaels — along with neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, who filmed the incident — were arrested and charged last month with murder. And on Wednesday, District Attorney Joyette M. Holmes announced that the Glynn County grand jury had returned an indictment on all three defendants, including four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count each of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

While the shooting happened months ago, the case did not receive national attention until Bryan’s graphic video — released by Arbery’s family and showing the last moments of the 25-year-old’s life — went viral on May 5.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told CBS News that the video “proves that my son was not committing a crime. He was out for his daily jog and he was hunted down like an animal and killed.”

The footage sparked outrage among criminal justice advocates across the country, and led to the call for a grand jury to investigate the fatal shooting. The Department of Justice is also looking into hate crime charges and reviewing how Arbery’s killing was handled on the state and local levels.

Arbery’s death has been compared with the shooting deaths of many other unarmed black people, including 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and Botham Jean, who was killed in his Dallas apartment in 2018. Protests have continued in Georgia — where social distancing requirements were recently relaxed — with hundreds of people marching through Satilla Shores, promising to “run with Maud” and chanting, “We want justice!”

“The video is very clear that they were on the truck with guns hunting him down,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Arbery’s father, told the Associated Press. “I don’t know what more you need to make an arrest.”

Prior to the video’s release, the only public record of Arbery’s final moments were the statements the McMichaels gave to police. An investigation into the shooting had been limited, as a series of prosecutors recused themselves from the case over their ties to Gregory McMichael. This has frustrated Arbery’s supporters, who argue that his killing — and the subsequent actions of local law enforcement — shows how little has changed in an area of Georgia that’s been described as dotted with Confederate flags, with a history of mobs of white men taking justice into their own hands in a manner that leaves black men dead.

Everything we know about Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

Arbery, a former high school football star, was passionate about staying in shape, according to friends and family, who told the New York Times he often spent his free time running. He went for one such run on February 23, ending up in Satilla Shores, a few miles away from his home in Glynn County.

Gregory McMichael claims he was in his front yard when he saw Arbery “hauling ass,” after which he ran inside to get a weapon and his son, Travis. He told police that he said, “Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go.”

By “the guy,” he meant the person responsible for what some in the neighborhood have described as two burglaries. Larry English, a man whose home was under construction in the McMichaels’ neighborhood, said someone stole $2,500 in fishing gear from him earlier this year, but he never reported the theft, he told the Daily Beast; he also never accused Arbery of committing any crimes.

It has since come to light, however, that the Glynn County Police Department contacted English in December 2019, asking him to reach out to Gregory McMichael whenever he “got action” on his surveillance camera, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Greg is retired Law Enforcement and also a Retired Investigator from the DA’s office,” Officer Robert Rash texted English, along with McMichael’s phone number. “He said please call him day or night when you get action on your camera.” English’s attorney said her client never took McMichael up on his offer.

Trespassing on English’s property was, apparently, a common occurrence. In mid-May, CNN obtained 11 surveillance clips from English’s attorney and found that multiple people, including women and children, had entered the home in the months leading up to Arbery’s death. The only confirmed instance of Arbery himself being on the property was on February 23.

The second burglary in the area was reported to police by Travis McMichael, who said a 9 mm pistol was stolen on January 1 from a vehicle parked outside his home. In the police report filed after Arbery’s killing, Gregory McMichael said the burglar had been caught on surveillance video and that Arbery matched the description of the suspect.

There seemed to be concern about Arbery’s presence in the neighborhood for much of his time there on the afternoon of February 23; several calls, at least one of which was from the McMichaels, were placed to 911. Satilla Shores is a predominantly white neighborhood, one the Daily Beast’s Justin Glawe describes as featuring “several homes … decorated with Trump flags, one bearing the president’s smiling face with the phrase, Make liberals cry again.”

The first featured a caller expressing distress about Arbery being near a house that is under construction on property owned by English. The dispatcher asked what Arbery was doing wrong but never received an answer. Arbery’s family has said he’s always been inquisitive and was likely just having a look at the bones of the home, since that’s something one doesn’t see every day.

After that first call, 911 received another, in which the caller said, “I’m out here at Satilla Shores. There’s a black male running down the street.” The caller can be heard yelling, “Watch that. Stop, damn it! Stop!” but stops responding to the dispatcher’s inquiries.

As these calls were being made, the McMichaels were preparing to pursue Arbery. Gregory McMichael told police he armed himself with a .357 magnum while his son got a shotgun. He told police he felt the weapons were called for because he’d seen Arbery in the neighborhood previously with his hand in his pants in a manner suggestive of a firearm. Then the men got into Travis McMichael’s pickup truck and began to chase Arbery through the neighborhood.

Arbery’s uncle told the Brunswick News that Arbery was amazingly fast and agile. And the police report suggests that — despite being on foot — he evaded the McMichaels for a time. Gregory McMichael claims his son tried to cut off Arbery with his truck, but that he turned around and ran in the other direction.

The police report mentions another person, identified only as “Roddy” — William Bryan — who tried unsuccessfully to cut Arbery off with his vehicle.

McMichael claims they were able to catch up with Arbery and shouted out of the truck, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” before stopping the truck beside him, at which point Travis exited with his shotgun. Then, McMichael claims, Arbery attacked his son, the two men fought over the shotgun, two shots were fired, and then Arbery fell, bleeding. The officer who wrote the report said Arbery died not long after police arrived on the scene.

But the video — filmed by Bryan from his vehicle — appears to show something slightly different. Civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt, who is representing Arbery’s family, reposted the video on his Twitter account on May 5.

As the vehicle turns a bend in a road, a black man wearing a white shirt — what Arbery was described as wearing in 911 calls — can be seen running. A white pickup truck, ostensibly the McMichaels’, blocks his path; a white man is in the street next to the driver’s side of the truck, and another stands in the flatbed. The video is blocked by the dashboard for a moment, and some unintelligible yelling can be heard. The video then shows the black man trying to run around the truck.

It’s not possible to see what happens next, but there’s a gunshot; the black man and the white man who was standing in the road reappear in the frame, engaged in a struggle, and move off the road, again leaving the video’s frame. As the man in the flatbed brings up his firearm, there’s another gunshot. The video Merritt posted ends with the struggle — seemingly over possession of a firearm — continuing. A longer version available online features a third gunshot, and the black man falling to the pavement, his shirt seemingly red with blood.

While the police were en route, Arbery was “on the ground ‘bleeding out,’” according to the report. Travis McMichael had blood on his hands; his father said this was from Travis rolling Arbery’s body over to check for a gun.

An autopsy report released May 12 revealed that Arbery was shot twice in the chest and “had a third wound” on one of his wrists.

Arbery’s supporters say this is a clear case of racist murder — but complications have inhibited an investigation

Advocates for Arbery argue his killing is a very clear case of racial profiling; in his caption for the video, Merritt wrote, “Ahmaud Arbery was pursued by three white men that targeted him solely because of his race and murdered him without justification.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by others, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who tweeted, “The video is clear: Ahmaud Arbery was killed in cold blood.”

Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election and who has said she hopes to become Biden’s running mate, demanded a “full investigation, appropriate charges, and an unbiased prosecution.”

But charges were slow coming, due to conflicts of interest and Georgia’s stand-your-ground law and citizen’s arrest law.

The case is on its fourth prosecutor; the first put in charge of the case, Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, recused herself because she’d previously employed Gregory McMichael. The district attorney of Waycross, Georgia, George Barnhill, was then assigned to it, but he recused himself after Arbery’s mother pointed out his son works in Johnson’s office.

Barnhill officially recused himself in an April 7 letter — and in it, he wrote that his son and Gregory McMichael “both helped with the previous prosecution of Arbery” on behalf of Johnson’s office. Arbery was convicted of probation violation after facing a shoplifting charge in 2018, something Barnhill pointed out in an earlier letter in which he laid out the reasons he believed the McMichaels had done nothing wrong.

In that letter, dated April 3, Barnhill suggested Arbery had mental health issues, and highlighted not just the shoplifting issue, but also the incident that led to Arbery being placed on probation: having brought a gun to campus while he was in high school.

The letter also notes Georgia has an open-carry law, a separate state law allows a private citizen to attempt arrests if an “offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge,” and that it has a stand-your-ground law that allows someone who feels threatened “to use deadly force to protect himself,” without having to first try to retreat or call law enforcement.

Merritt has dismissed Barnhill’s interpretation of these laws, telling CNN he doesn’t believe the McMichaels were trying to make a citizen’s arrest, noting that the McMichaels’ statements frame the shooting as an act of self-defense.

And he said the citizen’s arrest law says “you actually have to be observing the crime or be in the immediate knowledge of the crime” but argues the McMichaels never claimed this was the case.

The Washington Post also reported that Gregory McMichael had his law enforcement certification suspended last year after repeatedly failing to complete required training. He also received a warning in 2014 for neglecting to finish mandatory firearms and use-of-force classes.

Merritt has also pushed back against other claims in Barnhill’s letter, including the references to Arbery’s mental health and previous interactions with the legal system.

“The reference to … alleged conduct from high school or shoplifting is absurd and has nothing to do with his murder,” Merritt said.

The shoplifting case does connect Barnhill, Gregory McMichael, and Arbery, however. When Barnhill recused himself in an April 7 letter, he wrote that his son and Gregory McMichael “both helped with the previous prosecution of Arbery” on behalf of Johnson’s office.

The real impetus behind the killing, Merritt suggested, can be seen in the 911 calls, when the caller fails to give a clear reason for the call but does note, “There’s a black male running down the street.”

Gregory McMichael told the Daily Beast Arbery’s race was irrelevant and that he “never would have gone after someone for their color,” saying instead that Barnhill’s letter is the “closest version of the truth.”

Meanwhile, pressure has mounted for Barnhill and Johnson to be removed from office. Protesters gathered at the Glynn County Courthouse on May 16 to demand their resignations.

“Racism is real in America and racism is real in Brunswick, Georgia and we come today to send a message to the racists and the supremacist that we will fight you with everything that we have,” Rev. Timothy McDonald said at the protests, Reuters reported.

Investigations have ramped up since the video went viral

Two days after the state took over the case, the McMichaels were arrested and booked in a Glynn County jail. A day later, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds announced that Bryan was also under investigation. He was charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment two weeks later.

On May 10, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced he had asked the Department of Justice to investigate the handling of the case. “We are committed to a complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset,” Carr said in a statement. “The family, the community and the state of Georgia deserve answers, and we will work with others in law enforcement at the state and federal level to find those answers.”

Meanwhile, Carr reassigned the case to a new district attorney, Joyette Holmes of Cobb County, which is northwest of Atlanta. In a statement, Carr said that while Durden had been executing his duties well, he believed someone with more resources was needed.

On June 24, Holmes announced an indictment with nine counts against each of the three defendants: malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

Correction: An earlier version of this story miscategorized the incidents described by Larry English and Travis McMichael. They were described as thefts or burglaries.


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