BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery has sparked outrage not just over the two armed men seen in cellphone video of the confrontation in which the 25-year-old died, but also against law enforcement officials who took 2½ months before arrests were made.
On Tuesday, after the video showing a man and his father -- a retired district attorney investigator -- confronting Arbery with their guns was leaked, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was asked to join the case. Within 48 hours, both men were charged with felony murder and aggravated assault.
According to the state arrest warrant, Travis McMichael “pointed and discharged a shotgun […] at Ahmaud Arbery while his father, Gregory McMichael, a retired Brunswick County District Attorneys Office investigator, “aided and abetted” his son.
The father and son, both wearing orange jumpsuits, appeared individually from jail on a videoconference screen in the courtroom of Glynn County Magistrate Judge Wallace Harrell. Inmates aren’t appearing in person because of the novel coronavirus. Both will be held without bond at least until they appear before a superior court judge.
Outside the county courthouse, hundreds gathered to remember Arbery and demand resignations from law enforcement involved in the case, including the district attorney and the sheriff.
“This was a murder," said James Tayor, a demonstrator at a rally Friday outside the Glynn County Courthouse. "This was not a stand your ground … defense. These people got into a car and chased him down and killed him.”
Glynn County Commissioner Peter Murphy said investigators with Glynn County Sheriff’s Office were told by District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s Office to not arrest the McMichaels following the Feb. 23 shooting.
And Johnson recused herself because of the elder McMichael’s connection with her office, the next district attorney assigned to the case -- George Barnhill of the Waycross Judicial Circuit -- also advised investigators not to arrest the McMichaels.
In a letter to Glynn County police in early April, Barnhill outlined reasons he believed there was "insufficient probable cause to issue arrest warrants'' in the case. He argued that the McMichaels’ actions were legal under Georgia laws on citizen’s arrests, the open carry of guns and self-defense.
“The autopsy supports the initial opinion we gave you on February 24th, 2020, at the briefing room in the Glynn County Police Department after reviewing the evidence you had at that time. We do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties," Barnhill wrote.
“I don’t see how they expect the police to go cuff these men up when they have been told directly on Sunday and on Monday by the district attorney’s office not to arrest anybody,” Murphy said.
Late Friday, the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office released a statement contradicting Murphy’s claim and defending Johnson’s decisions.
“At no time on February 23, 2020, did District Attorney Jackie Johnson have any conversation with any Glynn County police officer about this case. Further, no assistant district attorney in the office directed any Glynn County police officer not to make an arrest. It is unfortunate that Commissioners Murphy and Booker have chosen to make false accusations against District Attorney Jackie Johnson in an attempt to make excuses and ignore the problems at the Glynn County Police Department, for which they are ultimately responsible. Acting Police Chief Jay Wiggins has indicated that it was a mistake that then-Police Chief John Powell did not immediately call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate the death of Ahmaud Arbery.”
Asked if the GBI planned to investigate the way Glynn County Sheriffs Office conducted the case, Director Vic Reynolds said his investigators would go where the facts led them
"All that matters is what the facts tell us,'' Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds said Friday, noting that his agency brought charges a day after it was brought into the case. Reynolds said ``every stone will be uncovered'' in the investigation.
Addressing the question of racial intent, Reynolds noted that Georgia has no hate crime law. That has prompted many civil rights activists to call for a federal investigation.
According to the initial Glynn County police homicide report, the McMichaels told police they pursued Arbery, with another person recording them on video, after spotting him running in their neighborhood. The father and son said they thought he matched the appearance of a burglary suspect who they said had been recorded on a surveillance camera sometime before.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, has said she thinks her son, a former high school football player, was just jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood before he was killed.
Anger over delayed justice
Arbery would have turned 26 on Friday, and a crowd of several hundred people, most wearing masks, sang "Happy Birthday'' in his honor outside the Glynn County Courthouse. Many expressed frustration at the long wait before arrests were made and fears that the justice system will fail them.
"The work is just beginning,'' John Perry, president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter, told the crowd. ``We can’t stop now. We can’t lose focus and we’ve got to make sure the prosecution gets done.''
Anthony Johnson, 40, said Arbery was his neighbor for about a decade. He said he wants to see the McMichaels get the same treatment in the legal system as black defendants.
"Just arresting them, that ain’t doing nothing,`` Johnson said. ``We want them convicted. We want them sent to prison for life.''
The felony murder charges against Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, mean that a victim was killed during the commission of an underlying felony, in this case aggravated assault. The charge doesn’t require intent to kill.
A murder conviction in Georgia is automatically punishable by life in prison, either with or without the possibility of parole. A prosecutor can also seek the death penalty in a murder case if certain aggravating circumstances exist.
A GBI news release said the McMichaels "confronted Arbery with two firearms. During the encounter, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery.''
Some of the encounter was apparently recorded in two 911 calls, with a dispatcher trying to understand the problem.
"There’s a black male running down the street,'' the caller says.
"I just need to know what he was doing wrong,'' the dispatcher responds, in part.
In a second call six minutes later, someone can be heard yelling ``Stop. ... Dammit. Stop.'' Then, after a pause, "Travis!''
Gregory McMichael retired last year as an investigator for Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson; the connection caused Johnson to recuse herself. Barnhill then got the case before recusing himself under pressure from Arbery’s family because his son works in Johnson’s office.
Tom Durden, the outside prosecutor overseeing the case, had said he wanted a grand jury to decide whether charges are warranted, but Georgia courts are still largely closed because of the coronavirus. Durden said Friday that he won’t bow to public pressure from one side or another.
The leaked video shows a black man running at a jogging pace toward a pickup truck stopped in the road ahead of him, with one of the white men standing in the pickup’s bed and the other beside the open driver’s side door.
The running man attempts to pass the pickup on the passenger side, moving just beyond the truck, briefly outside the camera’s view. After a gunshot sounds, and the video shows the runner grappling with a man 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.
"They did not arrest the killers of Ahmaud Arbery because they saw the video,'' Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the slain man’s father, Marcus Arbery, told The Associated Press on Friday. ``They arrested the killers of Ahmaud Arbery because we saw the video, the public saw the video and it went viral. It was shocking. People were astonished.''
The outcry over the killing reached the White House, where President Donald Trump offered condolences to Arbery’s family.
Trump said Friday on Fox News Channel that he’d seen the video.
"It’s a heartbreak ... very rough, rough stuff,`` Trump added. ``Justice getting done is what solves that problem. It’s in the hands of the governor and I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.''