On Wednesday, November 24, a jury found three men, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory, and their neighbor William Bryan guilty of multiple murder charges for killing Ahmaud Arbery, a high-profile case that attracted much attention and spurred nationwide protest for racial equality last year.
According to his friends and family, Arbery enjoyed jogging, and on February 23, 2020, the day of the killing, he was out in Saltillo Shores, a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia where he lived, when he was spotted by Gregory McMichael. The man suspected him to be a burglar and chased Arbery with his son Travis and their neighbor in their pickup trucks. The chase led to a direct confrontation and fighting between Arbery and Travis McMichael, who was carrying a shotgun and used it to shoot Arbery three times “out of self-defense,” causing Arbery’s death.
The case concerning Arbery’s murder was initially handled by George Barnhill, the district attorney for Waycross, Georgia, who suggested that the McMichaels’ actions were legal under the state’s open-carry and self-defense law. Citing a statute revolving around the notion of “citizen’s arrest”, a court found no probable cause for arresting the three men, and no arrest was attempted for two months after the killing until a video of chase surfaced.
The video was recorded by William Bryan with his phone, and it captured the McMichaels chasing Arbery, the confrontation, and the sounds of gunshots in the background. The video spread widely through the internet and provoked public outrage over the killing and the lack of consequences, and the new evidence the video presents made it necessary for the case to be further examined by a jury.
During the trial, the defense lawyers frequently cited the state’s citizen’s arrest statute, which suggests that “a private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” They reasoned that because the McMichaels and Bryan suspected Arbery of burglarizing houses in their neighborhood, they were rightful to attempt an arrest. Travis McMichael, the only defendant that testified, also evoked self-defense: “It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would have gotten the shotgun from me, then this was a life-or-death situation. So I shot.”
The prosecuting team, however, rejected such reasoning. Facing an almost all-white jury selected from a county with a quarter of African American population, Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor, chose not to dwell on the racial implication of the case but to focus on details of the chase and the confrontation in order to dismantle defendants’ claim of citizen’s arrest and self-defense. She only mentioned Arbery’s race as a motive for the killing once, in the closing statement.
After deliberation that spanned two days, the jury found Travis McMichael guilty of all nine counts of crimes, including malice murder, intentional killing of the victim, felony murder, when the offender committed a felony that is connected to a murder, aggravated assault, and false imprisonment. Gregory McMichael and Bryan were found not guilty of malice murder but were guilty of other charges, including felony murder. They all face up to life sentence in prison.
The issuing of the verdict on Wednesday afternoon led to a small celebration outside the courthouse. Bobby Henderson, co-founder of a local organization in Glynn, Georgia that advocates for diversity in local leadership praised the verdict of the case for providing accountability to Arbery’s family, but that more work was needed “to combat the system that failed Ahmaud on that day.”