Seeing Beyond a Death

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 20, 2021
Much is being made this week of the criminal trial of three White Georgians for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man cornered and killed while jogging in the wrong Brunswick, Ga., neighborhood last year, as a status check for the nation’s views on race.

However, it’s probably a lot more important and useful to gauge its outcome as a single case.

The reasons are three. First, the known facts reflect an awful incident all by itself, a hard-to-swallow case of vigilantism and racial hatred. Second, it was a fight to get this case to trial at all. And, even a finding of guilt in this trial will do little to lessen the effects of racism nationally, though a failure to find guilt would certain make them worse.

Indeed, arguably an equally important part of this criminal proceeding is the one that won’t be on display — still pending misconduct charges against former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson for using her position to shield the three men finally charged in the Arbery killing. Johnson faces a separate felony count of violating her oath of office and hindering a law enforcement officer, a misdemeanor.

It’s perhaps the better indicator of how far our justice institutions will go to show courtesy in possible arrest or confinement in race-laden cases.

The jury selection was beginning on Monday among 1,000 potential candidates for the trial of Travis McMichael, 35, Gregory McMichael, 65, and William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, on charges of running down and killing Arbery, a former high school athlete who was out for a jog. The three are charged with chasing him down using pickup trucks, cornering him, and shooting him three times with shotguns.

The killing was captured on cell phone video taken by Bryan and ended up sparking protests nationally, which is why the trial will attract attention as a status check on overt American racism.

The Case

The defense here is that the defendants believed Arbery was a burglar in a residential, White neighborhood — something for which police never found any truth. Robert Rubin, lawyer for Travis McMichael, said the men were using Georgia’s former citizen’s arrest law to try detaining Arbery and only resorted to violence when an unarmed Arbery fought them and fought over possession of McMichael’s gun.

Georgia later repealed its citizen’s arrest law, in part because of Arbery’s death.

The prosecution argues that the trio aggressively pursued Arbery, chasing him as he sought to get away and even into a vacant house under construction. Arbery, a former high school athlete, lived about two miles away, and this was one of his regular running routes off main roads.

The three men are facing several charges in Georgia state court, including felony murder. The Department of Justice has filed federal charges against the men including hate crimes, accusing them of targeting Arbery because of his race, and will have a separate trial in February.

None of the men was charged immediately after Arbery’s shooting and they remained free for about 10 weeks until the video footage became public. Several prosecutors recused themselves from the case after potential conflicts arose and pressure forced them to step aside. Finally, Georgia Atty. Gen. Chris Carr asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into Former district attorney Johnson, who has been voted out of office and faced charges for interfering with police. There were also questions about the Glynn County Police Department, which initially investigated Arbery’s death.

Bodycam video from the scene shows police treating Travis McMichael with great care and deference as he stood literally with blood on his hands, while Arbery lay in the street Gregory McMichael had been an officer in the department in the 1980s and later worked as an investigator in the district attorney’s office.

The racist elements here are beyond the ethnicities of the participants, and go right to the heart of who gets arrested for what in race-based cases.

National Scrutiny

So, there’s plenty to watch in this case. The too-easy tendency in the media coverage, naturally, is to view this single case as if it reflects the national mood on race.

“Here we are in the South and we witnessed a lynching,” Bobby Henderson, co-founder of the grassroots group A Better Glynn, told NPR, for example. “How far are we from 1892? That’s what’s on the line.”

Arbery’s shooting has drawn intense national scrutiny, happening around the same time that racial justice protests were erupting in response to police misconduct. This killing is being seen as racially motivated — that Arbery was profiled as a Black man running through a predominantly white neighborhood, though the defense argues that anyone not from the neighborhood would have raised suspicions.

Bryan, who shot the video, was in the second pickup truck chasing Arbery. His lawyer says client had nothing to do with the shooting and has cooperated fully with the investigation.

The case has spurred policy changes and investigations. The legislature did repeat that citizen’s arrest law, and Glynn County has a new police chief — the first Black man to lead the department. And there are the charges now facing former prosecutor Jackson for showing “favor and affection” toward Greg McMichael in the investigation and by “directing that Travis McMichael should not be placed under arrest.”

Still, it’s not quite a national assessment on race.