Conviction of Arbery’s Killers Marks a Turning Point

“When we hear the name of Ahmaud Arbery, we will now hear and think of change.” – Wanda Cooper-Jones, announcing the formation of a scholarship in her late son’s honor.
A racially motivated killing that evoked the darkest days of Jim Crow terrorism now stands as a symbol of hope for a nation transformed.

A jury this week convicted Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan of federal hate crimes almost two years to the day after they chased down and fatally shot 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in suburban Georgia.

The conviction represents a renewed commitment by the Biden Administration to combat hate crimes, but initially, the killing wasn’t regarded as a crime at all. The appalling initial response of Georgia’s law enforcement establishment stands a testament to the systemic racism that continues to infest our criminal justice system at every level. The killers, steeped in white entitlement and their faith in a rigid racial hierarchy, had no fear of retribution from the law because in every practical sense they were the law.

It is only through the determination of Ahmaud’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and local activists that Ahmaud’s killers were brought to justice.

When the New York Times brought Ahmaud’s death to the nation’s attention in April of 2020, two months had passed with no charges filed and none seemed likely. The killers’ bogus claims of self-defense were accepted without question by local prosecutors – first by then-Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who ordered police to make no arrests before recusing herself because Greg McMichael formerly worked in her office.

Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill, who inherited the case, went even further in his efforts to shield the murderers from prosecution, falsely claiming that video existed of Ahmaud “burglarizing a home immediately preceding the chase and confrontation,” and that video of the shooting showed Ahmaud attacking Travis McMichael.

Barnhill’s son also worked in Johnson’s office and had collaborated with Gregory McMichael on a previous prosecution of Arbery, but Barnhill didn’t recuse himself until more than six weeks after taking over the case, and then only after the persistent efforts of Wanda Cooper-Jones.

Video of the shooting, leaked to the public in May 2020, showed the killers using their vehicles to trap Ahmaud and shooting him as he tried to escape. Incredibly, the defense attorney who leaked the video said he thought it would exonerate the killers because Ahmaud didn’t freeze when the attackers told him to stop.

It is this twisted, white supremacist worldview, which holds that a Black man who fails to heed the orders of a white man on the street deserves execution, that jurors rejected with this week’s verdict.

Since reaching a peak in the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, federal hate-crimes prosecutions have been rare. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, prosecutors failed to bring charges in 82% of criminal investigations referred to the Justice Department between 2005 and 2019. When charges are brought, they often are seen as a backstop against the likely failure of conviction at the local level. The charges against the McMichaels and Bryan are all the more significant because they were filed even before they went to trial in Georgia.

Together with a number of other federal civil rights investigations and prosecutions around the country, the McMichael-Bryan case signifies a potential turning point for the nation. A federal jury this week continued deliberations in the trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights during his fatal 2020 arrest. A “pattern or practice” investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department is ongoing, as is a similar investigation into the Louisville Metro Police Department, whose officers killed Breonna Taylor during the botched execution of a “no-knock” warrant in 2020. A federal investigation into the deadly 2019 arrest of Ronald Greene by Louisiana State Police and has expanded to other cases.

In his first public remarks after President Biden announced his selection for Attorney General last year, Merrick Garland noted that the Justice Department was created during Reconstruction amid a white supremacist campaign of terror to undermine through the rights of formerly enslaved Americans.

“These principles ensuring the rule of law and making the promise of equal justice under law real are the great principles under which the Department of Justice was founded and for which it must always stand,” Garland said. “They echo today in the priorities that lie before us, from ensuring racial equity in our justice system to meeting the evolving threat of violent extremism. If confirmed, those are the principles to which I will be devoted as attorney general.”

The successful prosecution of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers is just one indication that he is keeping that promise.

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