Ahmaud Arbery: What do we know about the case?


Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Demonstrators watch a parade of motorcyclists riding in honour of Ahmaud Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in February when he was confronted by Gregory and Travis McMichael. Mr Arbery was fatally shot during the encounter. More than two months later, the two men were arrested, as was the neighbour who filmed the death.

Here’s what we know so far.

What’s the status of the case?

Gregory, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, have been in the custody of the Glynn County Sheriff’s Department since last year.

They were detained by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) on 7 May 2020.

A neighbour who filmed a video of the confrontation, William Bryan, was arrested on 21 May 2020.

At a preliminary trial hearing, a judge determined that there was enough evidence to try all three men for murder. It also emerged that Travis McMichael used a racial epithet and an expletive directed at Mr Arbery as he lay on the ground. The three men have denied the charges.

Last May, Georgia appointed a new lead prosecutor in the case – district attorney Joyette Holmes – the fourth since Mr Arbery was killed. Her predecessor had called for a grand jury, but it could not be convened until Covid-19 restrictions began easing in June.

The three men each face nine charges, including murder and aggravated assault. They have pleaded not guilty.

Jury selection in their trial begins on 18 October.

How did Arbery die?

In the afternoon on 23 February, Mr Arbery was out for a jog in the coastal city of Brunswick.

At one point, he entered the Satilla Shores neighbourhood.

A neighbourhood resident, Gregory McMichael, told police he believed Mr Arbery resembled the suspect in a series of local break-ins.

Police have said no reports were filed regarding these alleged break-ins.

Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis, armed themselves with a pistol and a shotgun and pursued Mr Arbery in a pickup truck through the neighbourhood.

According to the elder Mr McMichael, he and his son had said “stop, stop, we want to talk to you”.

Media caption, Joggers out in solidarity with the killed 25-year-old

He said Mr Arbery then attacked his son. Lawyers for Mr Arbery’s family have said the 25-year-old was unarmed.

Three shots were fired and Mr Arbery fell down on the street.

An autopsy report showed Mr Arbery had two gunshot wounds in his chest, and a gunshot graze wound on the inside of one of his wrists. He did not have drugs or alcohol in his system.

Why did the arrest take so long?

The delay is in part tied to prosecutor turnover: the case is currently on its fourth. The Georgia Attorney General announced that Joyette Holmes of the Cobb County Judicial Circuit would replace attorney Tom Durden as lead prosecutor.

Two local district attorneys recused themselves due to professional connections to the elder Mr McMichael.

Officials have also publicly disagreed over whether there were orders to not arrest the pair.

Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson – whose office initially handled the case – was charged in September with violating her oath of office and obstructing the arrest of the McMichaels immediately after the shooting. She has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr McMichael had been previously employed by her office.

Image source, Georgia Bureau of Investigation
Image caption, Travis McMichael (left) and Gregory McMichael were detained on Thursday

The second district attorney involved, Waycross Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, had told police he believed the father and son had used citizen’s arrest rights in confronting the jogger, and that as a result there were no grounds for arrest.

Mr Barnhill recused himself, citing concerns raised by the victim’s mother over his ties to Mr McMichael.

Mr Arbery’s family have criticised prosecutors’ handling of the case as a “cover-up”.

Last year, Atlanta Attorney General Chris Carr formally requested the GBI to look into the conduct of the district attorneys who first handled the case before charges were filed.

Who was Arbery?

A former star high school football player, his father said he often exercised in the area.

His family has described him as a good, generous young man with a big heart. He would have turned 27 this year.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Residents have set up memorials in the neighbourhood

When Mr Arbery was in high school, he received five years of probation for a first-time weapons charge and in 2018, was convicted of probation violation for shoplifting according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.

It emerged that, in 2017, a Glynn County officer attempted to tase him after he denied their request to search his car at a park.

Police bodycam footage showed the encounter with officers, who said he was in a car in an area known for drug use. He said he was on his day off from work. The taser malfunctioned and he was allowed to leave on foot.

A police report obtained by the Guardian shows the officers wrote that they later found a bag in his car which they believed to contain cannabis.

What are McMichael’s ties to local law enforcement?

Gregory McMichael was a former police detective.

He also worked as an investigator for the local district attorney for years and had retired in 2019.

Mr McMichael had previously been involved in an investigation of Mr Arbery, according to a letter written by Mr Barnhill, the second prosecutor to recuse.

What are the videos in the case?

The first video surfaced publicly on 5 May 2020. The 36-second clip was filmed from a vehicle following Mr Arbery.

It shows Mr Arbery jogging, and approaching a stationary pickup truck which is ahead of him on the road.

He tries to bypass the truck and then is seen struggling with a man carrying a shotgun. There is muffled shouting and three gunshots are heard.

A second man is standing in the bed of the pickup. The second man is then shown with a pistol standing alongside the other armed man with the jogger no longer in view.

The clip – which sparked nationwide outcry swiftly followed by criminal charges – was leaked at the behest of Gregory McMichael because he thought it would make him and his son look better, according to WSB-TV in Atlanta.

On 10 May 2020, another video emerged, showing a man believed to be Mr Arbery at a home construction site shortly before the shooting.

In the footage from a surveillance camera, a black man in a white T-shirt walks onto the site and is seen looking around for a few minutes before leaving and jogging down the street.

Image source, Getty Images

Lee Merritt, an attorney for Mr Arbery’s family, said in a statement that it was Mr Arbery in the clip, and that it confirms the young man was out for a jog and did nothing illegal.

Who is William Bryan?

Police arrested William Bryan, who filmed the first video, two weeks after the McMichaels. Mr Bryan, along with the two McMichael’s, appeared to have been following Mr Arbery “in hot pursuit”, according to a memo by Mr Barnhill.

He is also mentioned in the Glynn County police report of the shooting, in which officers noted that Mr Bryan had unsuccessfully tried to block Mr Arbery’s path.

However, Mr Bryan told a local TV station that he “had nothing to do with it” and was in “complete shock”.

He did not answer questions on why he was there or why he started recording, but his lawyer said: “My client was responding to what he saw, which was someone in the community he didn’t know being followed by a vehicle he recognised.”

Mr Bryan has submitted a voluntary lie-detector test to investigators, his lawyer has said, despite not being asked by law enforcement to do so.

“Contrary to speculation, the polygraph examination confirms that on 23 Feb 2020, the day of the shooting, William ‘Roddie’ Bryan did not have any conversation with either Gregory or Travis McMichael prior to the shooting. Nor did William ‘Roddie’ Bryan have any conversation with anyone else that day prior to the shooting about criminal activity in the neighbourhood,” said lawyer Kevin Gough, using Mr Bryan’s nickname.

Image source, Police handout
Image caption, William Bryan Jr is being kept in the same jail as the McMichaels as they await trial

In a CNN interview, Mr Bryan said he was praying for the Arbery family and hoped his tape would help bring closure.

“If there wasn’t a tape, then we wouldn’t know what happened,” he said. “I hope that it, in the end, brings justice to the family and peace to the family.”

But officials have since argued he was not merely a witness, and attempted to “confine and detain” Mr Arbery too.

What do we know about the burglary claims?

Around the time of the incident, a number of emergency calls were made, CBS News has reported. In one, a neighbour said a black man was seen at a home under construction. When asked if the man was breaking in, the caller replied “No, it’s all open, it’s under construction.”

The caller then said that the man was “running down the street”.

The dispatcher says “I just need to know what he was doing wrong. Was he just on the premises and not supposed to be?” and the caller replies: “He’s been caught on the camera a bunch before at night. It’s kind of an ongoing thing out here.”

The owner of the home that was under construction told CNN that, while his CCTV captured four short clips of a man that appeared to be Mr Arbery “trespassing” on his property on 23 February 2020, he had not reported any crime to the police.

“I don’t want it to be put out and misused and misinterpreted for people to think that I had accused Mr Arbery of stealing or robbery, because I never did,” he said.

A lawyer for the homeowner later said it’s their belief that Mr Arbery had been looking for water. Security footage shows he was not the only person to enter the construction site – children from the neighbourhood were also filmed playing at the site.

Footage shows a man who looks like Mr Arbery entered the site twice in the five weeks before the fatal shooting, the lawyer added.

On one of the nights where a man is filmed entering the building, Travis McMichael called 911 to report seeing a “black male, red shirt and white shorts”.

“When I turned around and saw him and backed up, he reached into his pocket and ran into the house,” Mr McMichael told the police. “So I don’t know if he’s armed or not. But he looked like, he was acting like he was.”

Police records show only one burglary report in the neighbourhood between 1 January and 23 February 2020, US media report. That incident involved a gun being reported stolen from a pickup truck outside the home of Travis McMichael on 1 January.

What do the McMichaels say?

The McMichaels have not issued a statement to US media.

In their account to police, Mr McMichael alleges the jogger attacked his son in the road after they tried to stop him, and that they acted out of self-defence.

Attorneys representing the pair have described Mr Arbery’s death as a “tragedy” but urged against rushing to judgment.

“We will not try this case in the media,” said Laura Hogue, who is representing the elder McMichael with her husband, Frank Hogue. “The facts that matter will come out in the courtroom.”

In a May 2020 press conference, the lawyers suggested that new evidence would be revealed at trial but declined to provide further detail.

“Right now we are starting at the end,” Jason Sheffield, who is representing the younger McMichael, said in a May 2020 video conference. “We know the ending. What we don’t know is the beginning.”

What does Arbery’s family say?

Mr Arbery’s family has called his death a “lynching”.

His parents said the arrest of the McMichaels was a relief, but they have expressed a distrust of local law enforcement.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Wanda Cooper Jones (centre), Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, and his sister, Jasmine (right)

His mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, told PBS News: “I honestly think that if we didn’t get national attention to it, my son’s death would have actually been a cover-up.”

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the family, has asked for the same justice for Mr Arbery if the situations were reversed and two black men had attacked an unarmed white man.

“We know beyond a shadow of a doubt they would’ve been arrested on day one,” Mr Crump said.

What’s the law in Georgia?

Under the citizen’s arrest law, an individual could detain someone they had seen committing a serious crime and if the suspect was trying to escape.

Local media noted that the law did not always allow deadly force in carrying out an arrest – that’s limited to self-defence or times where it is absolutely necessary to prevent certain serious crimes.

The law, which dates back to the American Civil War era, was repealed in the wake of the incident.

Georgia was also one of only four states at the time with no hate crime statutes. Hate crime legislation has since been passed into law.

Is the federal government involved in this case?

A federal grand jury in April indicted the three men on charges of hate crimes and attempted kidnap of Mr Arbery. They have pleaded not guilty.

In a statement, the US Attorney’s office in the Southern District of Georgia said the three men were charged with allegedly interfering with Mr Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.

They are also accused of attempting “to unlawfully seize and confine Arbery by chasing after him in their trucks in an attempt to restrain him”.

Gregory McMichael, 65, and his son Travis, 35, are each further charged with a count of using, carrying and brandishing a firearm. Travis is also charged with discharging the firearm.

A separate trial on these federal charges will be held in February 2022.

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