Earlier this month the nation was shocked to learn of the brutal killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man killed when two white men chased him down, apparently believing him to be a burglar in their coastal Georgia neighborhood.
Even more shocking was that Arbery was murdered back in February and his case is only recently coming to light. Worse still, until a week ago, months after the incident, his killers had not been arrested or charged.
Were it not for a disturbing 36-second video that surfaced online showing Arbery’s death on February 23 at the hands of Travis McMichael and his father Gregory, the case might never have received the national attention it has in recent weeks. Although the two men claimed they believed Arbery to be involved in a series of recent burglaries and said their actions were justified by self-defense, it’s unclear as to why a “citizen's arrest” ultimately escalated to the fatal struggle over a shotgun between Travis and Arbery as depicted in the chilling video.
In the time between the video’s release and last week’s charging of the McMichaels with aggravated assault and murder, awareness of Arbery’s death has increased from local demonstrations by his community to widespread attention on social media from the likes of Kim Kardashian and LeBron James, as well as countless politicians and media figures.
Here's What We Know (So Far)
Earlier this week, it was confirmed that the infamous video, taken by a third party during the incident, was actually leaked by the father, Gregory McMichael, to a local radio station. He apparently believed that the video would clarify what happened, and show that he and his son were justified in using deadly force to "defend themselves" during a citizen's arrest. The problem is that the video did the opposite.
According to their defense, the McMichaels believed that Arbery was a suspect in a series of burglaries in their neighborhood. But there are several issues with their story. First, there was only one burglary reported for the entire year, on January 1. If there were other burglaries, they were never reported to the police. On February 23, two 911 calls came in. They reported seeing a black man in a white t-shirt entering a construction zone for a new house that was being built. The caller did not confirm that the person had entered the building or had stolen anything from the premises.
Yet somehow, this phone call escalated into a manhunt that ended in a deadly altercation. According to their defense, the McMichaels say the killing was justified as Arbery was resisting their citizen's arrest. So let's examine whether the McMichaels' claim holds up against Georgia state law.
The Right To A Citizen's Arrest Isn’t A License To Kill
We probably won't know exactly what happened to Ahmaud Arbery until all the evidence is presented at trial. For now, we can only pass judgement on what we do know, and the little information there is doesn't look good for the McMichaels' defense. It's ironic that Gregory McMichael would believe the video would clear his name, when what it appears to show is two men enacting their own version of justice against an innocent man.
1. To justify a citizen's arrest, you have to witness that person committing a crime.
There's no evidence that the McMichaels witnessed Arbery commit a crime. Even the 911 caller, who has not yet been identified, did not actually witness any crime. They were simply reporting suspicious activity. If the McMichaels saw Arbery and suspected he was responsible for those burglaries (yes, the ones that could not be corroborated because they were not reported to the police), that didn't give them the right to attempt a citizen's arrest.
2. You can't use a citizen's arrest to "question" a suspect.
The elder McMichael claims that the deadly altercation began with their vehicle pulling up alongside Arbery, and McMichael saying, "Stop, stop, we want to talk to you." They claim that Arbery's avoidance of them and refusal to answer their questions justified pulling out their weapons and threatening him. Either the McMichaels were attempting a citizens arrest or they were trying to question Arbery, but it can't be both. Why would you need to question someone who you had just witnessed commit a crime?
3. Pointing a gun at someone (loaded or unloaded) is a crime in Georgia.
If what the McMichaels were attempting to do was question Arbery, they were committing a crime by pointing guns at him while doing so. In fact, this action may actually put the "stand your ground" self-defense law on Arbery's side, giving him the right to attempt to take their weapon.
4. To justify self defense, your life should be in imminent danger.
Here's the final, and most decisive fact in the case. The McMichaels never claimed to see a weapon in Arbery's hand. They were the ones who initiated contact with him, and they were the ones who threatened him with guns. It seems desperately unlikely that two men, with a vehicle and two guns, were legitimately threatened by an unarmed pedestrian. It’s important to note that in the state of Georgia, you cannot use self-defense as justification for killing someone if you are the first aggressor.
Georgia state law is clear on what is allowed during a citizen's arrest, and what constitutes legal justification for self-defense. The fact that it took the release of the video and nationwide outrage to induce the police department to act against the McMichaels calls their integrity into question.
Issues within the Police Department
We know police at the scene believed they had probable cause to arrest both Travis and Gregory McMichael, but Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson allegedly stalled the arrests, which many claim was due to her personal friendship with the family. Johnson’s resignation is now being called for by protesters across the state.
It’s also been revealed that Gregory McMichael, a former police investigator, had his power to arrest and law enforcement certification revoked a year earlier because he failed a training on the use of force. The Glynn County Police Department has seen other alleged instances of corruption within the department as well, not involving McMichael.
The right to bear arms, the right to defend yourself against an assailant, and the right to hold another citizen under arrest while waiting for law enforcement are all essential for a safe, law-abiding society. But when citizens decide to take the law into their own hands and enact their own form of justice against someone they only suspect of a crime, they undermine the societal contract and breed fear and distrust in that community. It's imperative for police departments to correctly prosecute those who would take justice into their own hands.