SAVANNAH, Ga. – The white father and son stood quietly Friday as the judge read murder and aggravated assault charges against them in the fatal shooting of a black man who was running through their Georgia neighborhood. In just a few minutes, their first court appearance was over. It was a moment that many in Ahmaud Arbery’s community had waited more than two months for, as a series of prosecutors declined to bring charges against the men.
Earlier in the day — on what would have been Arbery’s 26th birthday — a boisterous crowd of several hundred people, most wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus, gathered outside the Glynn County courthouse for about 90 minutes and sang “Happy Birthday” in his honor.
With the coronavirus dominating the news and drastically altering Americans’ lives, Arbery’s shooting initially drew little attention outside Brunswick, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) south of Savannah. The working-class port city of about 16,000 also serves as a gateway to beach resorts on neighboring St. Simons and Sea Islands.
The Satilla Shores neighborhood where Arbery was killed on Feb. 23 lies at Brunswick’s edge, with comfortable brick and stucco homes nestled next to marshland. A wooden cross and flowers left as a memorial near the spot where Arbery died was decorated with foil birthday balloons Friday.
A video of the shooting shared widely on social media Tuesday thrust the case into the national spotlight and prompted widespread outrage. The investigation led by local authorities had seemed stalled and, amid the national uproar, a prosecutor specially appointed last month asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to get involved. On Thursday evening, the GBI announced the arrests of Gregory and Travis McMichael.
Though the arrests were welcomed, Arbery’s family and their supporters expressed frustration at the long wait and fears that the justice system will fail them.
Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, 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 some time 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.
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,” a 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!”
Arrest warrants for Gregory and Travis McMichael filed in court Friday confirmed, as the initial police report stated, that Travis McMichael “pointed and discharged a shotgun ... at Ahmaud Arbery.” But there were no new details.
The felony murder charges against the McMichaels 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 carries a minimum sentence of life in prison, either with or without parole.
In a letter to Glynn County police in early April, a prosecutor previously assigned to the case outlined reasons he believed there was “insufficient probable cause to issue arrest warrants” in the case. Waycross District Atttorney George E. Barnhill argued that the McMichaels’ actions were legal under Georgia laws on citizen’s arrests, the open carry of guns and self-defense.
The leaked video shows a black man running at a jogging pace. The truck is 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. 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,” Arbery family attorney Ben Crump said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press. “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.”
Crump blasted the handling of the case by the local police and prosecutors, and said he wants the GBI to “investigate the entire case from top to bottom.”
Gregory McMichael retired last year as an investigator for Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson, and the connection caused her 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.
“All that matters is what the facts tell us,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds said Friday, saying “every stone will be uncovered.”
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.
“The work is just beginning,” John Perry, president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter, told the crowd gathered outside the courthouse Friday morning. “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.”
Brumback reported from Atlanta.