ATLANTA – Amid outcry over the February shooting death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday addressed the investigation, saying “Georgians deserve answers.”
“Earlier this week, I watched the video depicting Mr. Arbery’s last moments alive. I can tell you it’s absolutely horrific,” Kemp said during a news conference. “In these moments, I’d ask you to continue to pray for his loved ones, the local community and our state.”
Kemp said it was him who ordered Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds to help the Hinesville District Attorney’s Office find out the truth.
“I did that right after seeing that horrific video. I’ve told Director Reynolds to follow the facts, to follow the truth, to administer justice without respective person,” Kemp said. “I told him that when I hired him. I told him that when I asked him to reach out to the district attorney about the case. Thankfully that district attorney agreed to allow us to help and do an independent investigation. I have no doubt in my mind it will be fair and Director Reynolds and his seasoned team of investigators will work very quickly and also be thorough and will go wherever the truth takes them.”
Kemp’s comments come after Arbery’s parents called for immediate arrests Wednesday as they faced the prospect of waiting a month or longer before a Georgia grand jury could consider bringing charges.
Outcry over the Feb. 23 shooting of Arbery intensified after a cellphone video that lawyers for his family say shows the killing surfaced online Tuesday. Following the video’s release, a large crowd of demonstrators marched in the neighborhood where Arbery was killed, and the state opened its own investigation, which the governor and attorney general pledged to support. The men who pursued Arbery told police they suspected he had committed a recent burglary.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, told reporters Wednesday she believes her 25-year-old son “was just out for his daily jog” in a neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick. She hasn’t watched the video.
“I saw my son come into the world,” Jones said. “And seeing him leave the world, it’s not something that I’ll want to see ever.”
No arrests have been made or charges filed in coastal Glynn County more than two months after the killing. An outside prosecutor in charge of the case said he wants a grand jury to decide whether criminal charges are warranted. That won’t happen until at least mid-June, since Georgia courts remain largely closed because of the coronavirus.
Attorneys for Arbery’s family said the father and son, who have acknowledged in a police report grabbing guns and pursuing Arbery in a truck after seeing him running in their neighborhood, should be arrested now before a grand jury decides whether to indict them — as often happens in criminal cases.
“These men were vigilantes, they were a posse and they performed a modern lynching in the middle of the day,” said Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother.
According to an incident report filed by Glynn County police, Arbery was shot after two men spotted him running in their neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon. Gregory McMichael told police that he and his adult son thought the runner matched the description of someone caught on a security camera committing a recent break-in in the neighborhood. They armed themselves with guns before getting in a truck to pursue him.
The father said his son, Travis McMichael, got out of the truck holding a shotgun, and Arbery “began to violently attack.” He said Arbery was shot as the two men fought over the shotgun, according to the police report.
After Arbery was shot, the police report says, Gregory McMichael turned him onto his back to see if he was armed. The report doesn’t say whether he had a weapon.
The cellphone video, initially posted by a Brunswick radio station, shows a black man running at a jogging pace on the left side of a road. A truck is parked in the road ahead of him. One man is inside the pickup’s bed, and another is standing beside the open driver’s side door.
The runner crosses the road to pass the pickup on the passenger side, then crosses back in front of the truck. A gunshot sounds, and the video shows the runner grappling with a man in the street over what appears to be a shotgun or rifle. A second shot can be heard, and the runner can be seen punching the man. A third shot is fired at point-blank range. The runner staggers a few feet and falls face down.
The GBI got involved Wednesday after Hinesville District Attorney Tom Durden, who was appointed to oversee the case, requested the agency’s help. The GBI director said he assigned three supervisory-level agents to the case.
“I realize that emotions are running high in this community and they’re running high throughout this state,” Reynolds said in statement. “And the last thing anyone wants to do is extend us any patience. But I also realize that this investigation must be done correctly.”
Georgia law says a person can kill in self-defense “only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury ... or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” The law also says a person who provokes an attack or acts as “the aggressor” can’t claim self-defense.
Merritt, the attorney for Arbery’s mother, said the U.S. Justice Department should also investigate the death as a hate crime.
“The FBI has said it’s assisting,” said Justice Department spokesman Matt Lloyd, “and as is standard protocol we look forward to working with them should information come to light of a potential federal violation.”
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, also a Republican, spoke out in a statement posted Tuesday on Twitter.
“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,” Carr said. “I expect justice to be carried out as swiftly as possible."
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, also weighed in. “The video is clear: Ahmaud Arbery was killed in cold blood,” Biden tweeted, referring to the death as a “murder.”
Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael worked as an investigator in her office. He retired a year ago. Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill, the first outside prosecutor on the case, stepped aside in mid-April at the urging of Arbery’s family. Barnhill has a son who works as an assistant prosecutor for Johnson. The case was then forwarded to the Hinesville District Attorney’s Office.