ATLANTA — In more typical times, the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white man would have drawn widespread attention. Over the years, similar cases have shaken communities and spurred nationwide social justice protests.
But with much of the nation on lockdown because of the coronavirus and the possibilities for mass protests constrained, friends and family members of the black man who was killed, Ahmaud Arbery, said they worried that his death would go unnoticed and that no one would be held to account.
In recent days, Arbery’s death has raised questions about racial profiling, Georgia’s self-defense laws and the wisdom of citizen policing. Two prosecutors have recused themselves, citing conflicts of interest, and the case is now being looked at with fresh eyes by a third prosecutor in a county about an hour’s drive away.
This is what we know — and don’t know — about the case:
Who was Ahmaud Arbery?
Arbery, 25, was a former high school football standout who was living with his mother in coastal Glynn County, Georgia, outside of the small city of Brunswick, Georgia. He was shot dead in a suburban neighborhood called Satilla Shores. Friends and family said he liked to stay in good shape, and he was often seen jogging in and around his neighborhood.
On Sunday, Feb. 23, shortly after 1 p.m., he was killed in a neighborhood a short jog from his home after being confronted by a white man and his son.
How was he killed?
Arbery was running in the Satilla Shores neighborhood when a man standing in his front yard saw him go by. The man, Gregory McMichael, 64, thought Arbery looked like a man suspected of several break-ins in the area and called to his son, Travis McMichael, 34.
According to a police report, the men grabbed a .357 magnum and a shotgun, got into a pickup truck and chased Arbery, trying unsuccessfully to cut him off. A third man was also involved in the pursuit, according to the police report and other documents.
In a recording of a 911 call, which appears to have been made moments before the chase began, a neighbor told a dispatcher that a black man was inside a house that was under construction on the McMichaels’ block.
During the chase, the McMichaels yelled, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” according to Gregory McMichael’s account in the police report. They then pulled up to Arbery, and Travis McMichael got out of the truck with the shotgun.
“(Gregory) McMichael stated the unidentified male began to violently attack Travis and the two men then started fighting over the shotgun at which point Travis fired a shot and then a second later there was a second shot,” the report states.
The police report and other documents obtained by The New York Times do not indicate that Arbery was armed.
Gregory McMichael is a former Glynn County police officer and a former investigator with the local district attorney’s office who retired last May. Neither he nor his son has been arrested or charged.
Why has no one been arrested?
Shortly after the shooting, the prosecutor for the Brunswick judicial district recused herself because Gregory McMichael had worked in her office.
The case was sent to George E. Barnhill, the district attorney in Waycross, Georgia, who eventually recused himself from the case after Arbery’s mother argued that he had a conflict because his son also works for the Brunswick district attorney.
But before he relinquished the case, Barnhill argued in a letter obtained by The Times that there was not sufficient probable cause to arrest Arbery’s pursuers. In the letter, Barnhill noted that the McMichaels were legally carrying their firearms under Georgia’s open carry law. He said the pursuers were within their rights to pursue what he called “a burglary suspect” and cited a state law that states, “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”
Barnhill also argued that if Arbery attacked Travis McMichael, McMichael was “allowed to use deadly force to protect himself” under Georgia law.
What do Arbery’s defenders say?
Breaking News Alerts
Barnhill wrote, in his letter, that Arbery had mental health issues, though he does not elaborate on this point, and that he had prior convictions. Court records show that Arbery was convicted of shoplifting and of violating probation in 2018. Five years earlier, according to The Brunswick News, he was indicted on charges that he took a handgun to a high school basketball game.
Those details, Barnhill argued, “help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man.”
Arbery’s defenders believe he was probably jogging through the neighborhood for exercise. Michael J. Moore, an Atlanta lawyer who formerly served as a U.S. attorney in Georgia, reviewed Barnhill’s letter to the Glynn County Police Department, as well as the initial police report, at the request of The Times. In an email, Moore called Barnhill’s opinion “flawed.”
In his view, Moore said, the McMichaels appeared to be the aggressors in the confrontation, and such aggressors were not justified in using force under Georgia’s self-defense laws. “The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime,” Moore wrote.
What happens next?
After Barnhill recused himself, the state attorney general’s office assigned the case to a third prosecutor, Tom Durden, who is based in Hinesville, Georgia. Durden must now decide whether to present the case to a grand jury.
In a recent interview with The Times, Durden said he would be looking at the case with fresh eyes. “We don’t know anything about the case,” he said. “We don’t have any preconceived idea about it.”
c.2020 The New York Times Company