After deliberating for roughly 11 hours, a jury in Georgia has found three men — Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. — guilty in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was out for a run on the outskirts of Brunswick, Georgia, when the three white men cornered him with their vehicles and shot him dead. Video footage of the murder was viewed by millions of people in May 2020, sparking a widespread outcry about America’s disregard for Black life. The men pursued and shot Arbery in February 2020; the guilty verdict was nearly two years in the making.
Though the widely circulated video of the encounter shows most of what transpired when the men chased Arbery, the outcome of the trial was far from clear at the start.
One defendant, Travis McMichael, who shot Ahmaud Arbery, was found guilty of the first and most serious count of the indictment, malice murder, and eight other felony charges. William Bryan and Gregory McMichael received split verdicts. They were found guilty on counts of felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
Arbery became an avatar of the Black Lives Matter movement after his death, and the verdict is a significant moment in the struggle to receive justice for slain Black Americans. Still, the decision comes at a time when many activists believe social justice progress is being undone by laws that seek to restrict voting rights access or limit the scope of American history that’s taught in schools, while the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately affect historically underserved communities.
The verdict may come as a surprise, given that many activists and experts say the legal system tends to favor white men who claim self-defense: The defendants argued their actions fell under a Georgia citizen’s arrest law, created during the slavery era, that has since been repealed.
“What was at stake in this trial was reframing what and who we believe the rule of law will protect and is meant to protect — whether that is white supremacist ideology or the standard of true justice,” said Tiffany Jeffers, a professor of law and legal practice at Georgetown University Law Center. “This verdict hopefully quells white supremacist ideology and tells those individuals that [violence] is unacceptable.”
Whether the verdict changes behavior or not, Arbery’s death has already led to legal reform in Georgia, including the passage of a hate crimes law as well as the gutting of a slavery-era citizen’s arrest law that the men used to defend their killing. These changes could eventually ripple across the country. But most states still have these laws in effect, giving citizens and vigilantes what some legal scholars say is undue power to act on their worst biases.
“I am glad that Georgia has already taken these steps, but it all depends on what ultimately happens because we can still have people administering the laws in ways that are racist,” said Justin Hansford, a professor at the Howard University School of Law.
With viral video and questions about the role of race in policing and vigilantism, the high-profile trial of the three men was similar to that of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd. It also took place during the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was found not guilty of homicide on the grounds of self-defense after fatally shooting two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and wounding another during social justice protests in the summer of 2020.
The trial also had echoes of the case of George Zimmerman, who in 2012 shot Florida teenager Trayvon Martin dead and was found not guilty of murder and manslaughter after claiming self-defense. That case and the verdict inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, and the trial against the three Georgia men, eight years later, is viewed as a test of how much progress the country has made.
In a statement released Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that Arbery’s murder “is a devastating reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for racial justice in this country.”
Yet the prosecution didn’t mention race until its closing argument. The three men pursued Arbery “because he was a Black man running down the street,” a prosecutor said. Lawyers’ reluctance to introduce the case’s racial element mirrors America’s lingering unwillingness to confront racism.
Though the Black Lives Matter movement has changed the way America talks about social justice — in 2020, more Americans than in 2015 said that racial discrimination is a big problem — the strong backlash against it continues to slow advancement.
“While we’ve made strides, the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement have not been realized,” Jeffers said. “For people who support the movement, it’s frustrating to see it being used as a slogan when this is about life and death for people. There’s dissonance between the strides we’ve made and how far we have to go, and the fact that it almost feels like we’re right back at the beginning when we were having conversations about Trayvon’s murder.”
Prosecutors in the trial argued that Gregory McMichael, 65, his son Travis, 35, and neighbor William Bryan, 52, pursued Ahmaud Arbery based on false assumptions about why he was jogging in Georgia’s Satilla Shores neighborhood. The prosecution argued that the men could not claim self-defense since they were the initial aggressors.
Defense attorneys argued that the three men were making a lawful citizen’s arrest, which was protected at the time under a since-repealed Georgia statute. Under the law, a person could “arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”
The defense team then argued that the younger McMichael shot Arbery because Arbery attacked him. Georgia law at the time allowed someone to stand their ground and use reasonable force to defend themselves or others. But the force is unjustified if the person is the initial aggressor and if they’re committing or attempting to commit a felony against a person.
The prosecution pointed out that under the citizen’s arrest law, the men could only carry out an arrest if they witnessed a crime take place or had “immediate knowledge” that a crime had been committed. The men had not seen Arbery commit a crime, nor did they have knowledge that he did, a fact that was not disputed in the trial.
The prosecution argued in its closing statement that the men felt emboldened to go after Arbery, acting on gossip from the community Facebook group about thefts in the neighborhood. “The defendants assumed the worst about Mr. Arbery and made their driveway decisions,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said.
Though the prosecutors initially signaled that they might argue that the men were motivated by racial animus, they left out this context, choosing not to center the racial tensions of the case. Details like that there was a Confederate flag sticker on the McMichaels’ truck toolbox or that Travis McMichael apparently said a racial slur after shooting Arbery did not enter the courtroom.
“The prosecutors walked a thin line in trying to persuade jurors. They’re in the Deep South. So a Confederate flag in a juror’s mind, superficially, may not equate to racism or white supremacy. If you cross that line, you’ve lost them,” Jeffers said. “Prosecutors tried to make their case by using neutral arguments that are based in logic and reason. You don’t want to pull on the race heartstrings because you don’t know if it’s going to be effective with all members of the jurors. If it turns one off, then it backfires.”
The defense made a final play to paint Arbery as “not an innocent man,” as someone who was to blame for “running away instead of facing the consequences.” According to defense attorney Laura Hogue’s comments at trial, Arbery shouldn’t be seen as a victim since “the choices he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in khaki shorts, with no socks to cover his long dirty toenails,” even alluding to Arbery’s criminal record, which a judge ruled was inadmissible.
“With these statements, the defense was trying to argue that there was some reasonable basis for the suspicion they had. Some of the jurors could have had the same suspicions,” Hansford said. “But they were basing this in bias. It’s not illegal to run down the street with uncut toenails.”
Nevertheless, the jurors — 11 white and one Black — decided the men had no grounds to try to detain Arbery and kill him in the process. The men will face hate crimes charges in federal court in February, with a federal indictment claiming that they attempted to seize and intimidate Arbery because of his race and skin color.
In June 2020, just months after the men murdered Arbery, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a hate crimes bill into law. The law imposes additional penalties for crimes committed due to a victim’s perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability.
A felony conviction under the Georgia law could render a sentence of at least two years of imprisonment and a fine of no more than $5,000. A misdemeanor conviction could result in a sentence of six to 12 months of imprisonment and a $5,000 maximum fine. Before Kemp signed the measure, Georgia was one of four states that didn’t have a hate crime law on the books.
Georgia also made changes to its citizen’s arrest law, becoming one of the first states to repeal it. The Civil War-era legislation, initially used as a “slave-catching law,” was pared back to only allow citizen’s arrests in specific situations, like a business owner detaining a shoplifter or a restaurant owner detaining a dine-and-dasher.
“I want to be supportive and feel encouraged when legislatures repeal racist and biased laws. It’s a good thing, but I’m really looking at what manifests as a result of repealing the law,” Jeffers said. “If you still have bad policing, overpolicing, and overuse of force in Black communities, then repealing a citizen’s arrest law is of no effect. We need outcome-based results versus reactionary legislation.”
Kemp said in a statement released Wednesday that “Arbery was a victim of a vigilantism that has no place in Georgia,” and added that he hoped the case could lead his state “forward down a path of healing and reconciliation.”
Others say that as states look to change laws, officials need to think more about the other ways that racist violence impacts people’s lives, including mental health. During the trial, Arbery’s mother walked out after listening to the defense attorney try to sully her son’s character and introduce suspicion about his intentions during the final moments of his life.
“These families are traumatized by this violence but the government hasn’t provided anything, like financial support, for their healing,” Hansford said. “Is the conviction supposed to heal Arbery’s mother? She needs support.”
Update, 3:30 pm: This story was updated to include statements from President Biden and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.