After National Outcry, Justice Department Weighs Hate Crime Charges in Ahmaud Arbery's Killing. Here's What to Know
Graphic video footage showing the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot and killed while running in a residential area on Feb. 23, has prompted national outrage and put mounting pressure on law enforcement to take action. On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department said federal prosecutors are weighing pursuing hate crime charges in Arbery’s killing.
“We are assessing all of the evidence to determine whether federal hate crime charges are appropriate,” a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement on Monday, according to the Associated Press.
The Justice Department’s announcement comes after the Georgia Bureau of Investigations arrested two men in connection with Arbery’s murder on May 7. Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael were charged with murder and aggravated assault in Arbery’s death.
“Ahmaud Arbery was in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, GA when both Gregory and Travis McMichael confronted Arbery with two firearms,” the Georgia Bureau of Investigations said in a press release. “During the encounter, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery.”
Vic Reynolds, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said there was “more than sufficient probable cause” to charge the McMichaels with felony murder during a press conference Friday morning. The investigation is ongoing and Reynolds did not rule out whether any additional people would be arrested or charged in the case.
In an interview prior to the arrests, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, said she is focused on seeking justice for her son, a former high school football player who was working to be an electrician. “I’m feeling very discouraged at this point,” she told First Coast News. “I just think about how they could allow these two men to kill my son and not be arrested. That’s what I can’t understand.”
Advocates have likewise expressed alarm over the way the shooting has been handled by police, and how long it took for investigators to pursue criminal charges. Anger erupted after a disturbing video emerged Tuesday on social media, appearing to show the violent, and seemingly unprovoked, circumstances surrounding Arbery’s death.
Neither the District Attorney of Georgia’s Atlantic Judicial Court, Tom Durden, nor the Glynn County Police Department responded to TIME’s request for comment on the video’s authenticity. Reynolds told reporters law enforcement is reviewing the same video that circulated online, noting it is a “very important piece of evidence.” He added that the person who filmed the video is also under investigation.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s family, said in a statement that the family saw the video for the first time after it was posted online, despite making “multiple requests” to law enforcement for access to the footage.
According to Merritt, police have had the video footage since Feb. 23, the day Arbery was killed. It is not clear why the footage was not shared with family or released prior to Tuesday.
“This is murder,” Merritt said.
What happened to Ahmaud Arbery?
Video footage captured by a witness— later identified as William Roddy Bryan — in a vehicle being driven behind Arbery shows him as he jogs along a two-lane road on Feb. 23. Ahead, a white pickup truck is parked, with one man standing in the truck bed and another standing by the driver’s side.
In the video, Arbery is seen running toward the truck’s right side and he then veers in and out of the camera’s frame. A gunshot rings out. Arbery is then seen entering into a struggle with one man, who appears to hold a long gun. Another shot then rings out; Arbery was shot at least twice before he fell to the pavement. A criminal defense lawyer, Alan Tucker, was identified as the person who shared the video with a local radio station that made it public, according to the New York Times. Tucker had consulted with the McMichaels during the investigation into Arbery’s murder, according the Times reports, though it is unclear how much he advised them. Tucker did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.
An incident report from the Glynn County Police Department obtained by the New York Times identifies Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, 34, as two men who pursued Arbery, though they are not immediately identifiable in the video footage. The report includes a series of quotes from Gregory McMichael, who is identified as a witness.
Gregory McMichael said he saw Arbery run by his front yard and alerted his son, according to the police report — he says they thought he resembled a suspect behind recent break-ins in the neighborhood. Both men then grabbed weapons and attempted to follow Arbery in their pickup truck. After a chase, the men pulled up beside Arbery and shouted at him to stop, McMichael claimed, and Travis McMichael got out of the vehicle with a shotgun. Gregory McMichael alleged that Arbery then attacked Travis and that the men began fighting over the weapon before any shots were fired— an assertion which appears to contradict the footage appearing to show Arbery only began grappling with a man after the first shot.
The police officer who filed the report said the crime scene was later turned over to the Glynn County Criminal Investigative Division. It is not immediately clear if the person who filmed the video provided a statement.
Phone numbers provided for Gregory and Travis McMichael appeared to be disconnected on Wednesday. A spokesperson for the Glynn County Police Department did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.
Arbery’s family members say he was most likely out for a jog and that he was not responsible for any break-ins.
“Arbery had not committed any crime and there was no reason for these men to believe they had the right to stop him with weapons or to use deadly force in furtherance of their unlawful attempted stop,” Merritt said in a statement.
What has happened with the investigation into Arbery’s death?
The McMichaels were charged with murder and aggravated assault, and taken into custody on May 7.
On Monday, the Justice Department said federal prosecutors are weighing bringing potential hate crime charges in Arbery’s death.
Also on Monday, the attorney general of Georgia appointed a black district attorney to the case. Cobb County District Attorney Joyette M. Holmes will take over the case from Durden, who had been investigating in partnership with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Durden previously said a Glynn County grand jury should make the decision on whether criminal charges should be brought in the case. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, grand juries are prohibited from meeting through June 12.
“I have no control over the suspensions due to the pandemic; however, I do intend to present the case to the next available grand jury in Glynn County,” Durden said in a statement prior to the arrests.
“Based on the video footage and news reports that I have seen, I am deeply concerned with the events surrounding the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery,” Georgia’s Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement given to The Associated Press, which called for justice “to be carried out as swiftly as possible.”
Action by law enforcement on the case also appeared to have been delayed because of repeated conflicts of interest. Two prosecutors initially assigned to oversee the case each had to recuse themselves due to professional connections to Gregory McMichael, who previously worked as an investigator for the Brunswick District Attorney’s office and as an officer for the Glynn County Police Department.
According to a New York Times report, one of the prosecutors, George E. Barnhill, who had formerly been assigned to examine the case, told police the men who chased Arbery were acting in accordance with Georgia’s self-defense and citizen arrest statutes. Barnhill later recused himself from the case because his son had previously worked with Gregory McMichael.
Reached for comment, Barnhill did not directly address the Times‘ report. “It would be highly improper for this office to have any public comment about this case,” he wrote in an email to TIME. “People need to let the American criminal justice system work. After it is completed all of the facts and evidence will be available for the public to review.”
Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson also had to stop overseeing the case because of a conflict of interest over a prior professional connection with Gregory McMichael, according to the Associated Press.
What have activists and Arbery’s family said?
Arbery’s death and the delayed action from law enforcement has prompted a groundswell of protest over the last week. To show support to Arbery’s family and to commemorate what would have been his birthday ON MAY 8, people used the hashtag #IRunWithMaud and ran 2.23 miles in a reference to the date he was killed. In Brunswick, Ga. protestors gathered at a rally to call for justice in Arbery’s case. The social media campaign was led by Arbery’s former high school football coach, CNN reports.
James Woodall, president of the Georgia N.A.A.C.P., criticized the prosecutors who had to recuse themselves from the case over their “mismanagement” of the incident and called for them both to be removed.
“While we acknowledge District Attorney Tom Durden’s intentions to convene a grand jury to bring charges against the men who gunned down Ahmaud Arbery, we recognize that we have a long way to go until we reach justice,” Woodall said in a statement before the arrests. “The modern-day lynching of Mr. Arbery is yet another reminder of the vile and wicked racism that persists in parts of our country.”
“The vigilante behavior that we saw in Brunswick is unacceptable in a civilized society,” Young said in a statement. “Ahmaud was killed three days before the anniversary of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. Both incidents are a reminder that white supremacy has been a foundation for our country and leads repeatedly to the targeting and harming people of color, particularly African Americans.”
Correction, May 7:
In one instance, the original version of this story misstated Travis McMichael’s name. It is Travis McMichael, not Travel McMichael.