The February shooting death of an unarmed black man by the son of a former district attorney investigator has thrust Southeast Georgia into the national spotlight as politicians, celebrities and the slain man’s family call for criminal charges against the shooter.
No charges have been filed in the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot Feb. 23 by Travis McMichael in the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick.
According to Glynn County police documents, McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, told police they followed Arbery as he ran out of a neighborhood where there had been recent burglaries and told him to stop because they wanted to talk to him.
According to a 911 call, Greg McMichael said he saw Arbery inside a home that was under construction before deciding to pursue him.
In a letter to the Glynn County Police Department, District Attorney George Barnhill insisted there was no probable cause to arrest either Travis or Greg McMichael because the pair were protected under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law.
But an experienced Brunswick criminal defense attorney told News4Jax that is NOT his interpretation of the state law or the facts of a video released online this week showing the deadly encounter.
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Barnhill wrote that it appeared the father and son “were following, in ‘hot pursuit,’ a burglary suspect, with solid first-hand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/telling him to stop. It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived.”
Brunswick criminal defense attorney Page Pate, who has been practicing criminal defense for 25 years in the state of Georgia, said the state's citizen's arrest law was created to allow retailers to apprehend someone they think might be shoplifting. He said he can't think of any legitimate legal reason why the law would be cited to defend the actions of the men involved in Arbery's shooting death.
“What's critical about Georgia's law (is that) although you are allowed to detain someone as a citizen if you think they committed a crime, you cannot use excessive force,” Pate said in an interview on “The Morning Show.” “So even if there was a crime committed and he was trying to hold onto Mr. Arbery to wait for police, you cannot then escalate it, as I think happened in this case.”
Cellphone video of the encounter appears to show Arbery running on Satilla Drive toward a white truck that is stopped in the middle of the street with Travis McMichael standing outside the parked truck, holding what looks like a shotgun.
On the video, a gunshot can be heard before Arbery and Travis McMichael become engaged in a struggle over the weapon. Two more gunshots can be heard and then Arbery is seen trying to run away before falling to the ground with bloodstains on his white shirt.
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED: Uncut cellphone video of shooting, confrontation
Barnhill wrote in hWis letter that he believes Travis McMichael was defending himself when he shot Arbery, but Pate disagrees with that interpretation of the video.
“I do not think this is a good self-defense case for Mr. McMichael. I mean, No. 1, you see Arbery running down the street, he is not approaching the McMichaels, he his not threatening them, he doesn't present any sort of threat whatsoever. They are chasing him,” Pate said. “And then at the point that when Travis McMichael has the gun and is pointing it at Arbery, it is totally reasonable and justified for Mr. Arbery to try to defend himself. So I don't think Travis McMichael can say he was acting in self-defense when it appears from the video that he is the aggressor in this situation.”
Pate said what's just as puzzling to him are details of the police report taken the day Arbery was killed. According to the report, Greg McMichael told police there had been break-ins in the neighborhood but never said he witnessed a crime that day. Nowhere in the report does McMichael tell the officer that he and his son were trying to make a citizen's arrest.
“Citizen's arrest was not what Mr. McMichael was saying at that time. He was saying that his son acted in self-defense,” Pate said. “The district attorney in Waycross as part of his justification not to charge these people or recommend that they be charged came up with this citizen's arrest defense.”
George Barnhill would not comment when the I-TEAM called him about his letter to Glynn County police.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is now looking into the case and why charges have not been filed.