On November 24, a jury in Brunswick, Georgia, rendered a measure of justice in the brutal murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man. The three defendants, Gregory McMichael, 65, a retired cop; his son Travis McMichael, 35, who previously worked for the U.S. Coast Guard; and their neighbor William Bryan, 52, a mechanic, were found guilty of murder and other charges. All now face the prospect of life in prison.
Arbery was killed on February 23, 2020, in Satilla Shores, in Georgia’s Glynn County, where he was out jogging as he often did. The McMichaels claimed they believed he had committed a burglary although they had no evidence on which to base their spurious claim. Bryan told the court he had no such “knowledge” or even belief. Seeing his neighbors chasing a Black man was apparently all he needed to join in. Using two vehicles the three cornered Arbery so he could not escape. When Arbery tried to defend himself, Travis McMichael murdered him with the shotgun he had brought on the chase.
In a classic effort of seeking to turn the criminal into the victim, and vice versa, the lawyers for the defendants—all of whom are white—claimed the shooting occurred as an act of self-defense. The jury did not buy it.
Cedric King, a local businessman who is African American, told the New York Times: “Anybody with warm blood running through their veins that witnessed the video and knew the context around what transpired knew that it was wrong.”
Throughout U.S. history, the chances of an African American receiving justice through the courts, particularly in a largely white area such as Glynn County, Georgia, have been poor. Ahmaud Arbery’s family, and others who supported their battle for justice and accountability in this case, had reason for apprehension as the trial opened. Lawyers for the defense successfully excluded almost all Black jurors. Although African Americans make up more than 25% of the county’s population, only one Black person was seated on the 12-person jury.
Even the judge knew something was wrong. Judge Timothy Walmsley acknowledged “intentional discrimination in the panel.” He said he was unable to reinstate any of the dismissed jurors because the defense was “able to explain to the court why besides race those individuals were struck from the panel.”
Many observers knew this was a case of the “good” reason and the “real” reason. The “good” reasons were “race-neutral.” The real reasons were that the defense wanted to exclude African Americans who might have more clearly understood the motives of the defendants when they chased Arbery down and killed him: They did so because he was Black, which in their minds meant a criminal, and because they did not fear any serious legal consequences from their vigilantism.
In the weeks following the murder, the defendants had reason to believe the outcome would go their way. Local authorities did not file murder charges immediately. Local police said the Brunswick district attorney’s (D.A.) office advised them the day of the murder to make no arrests. It took authorities more than two months to file any criminal charges or make any arrests. They did so on May 7, 2020, two days after a video of the horrendous killing was made public. Two local district attorney’s offices handled the case originally. Both ultimately removed themselves from it, citing conflicts of interest. One of the former prosecutors, Jackie Johnson, has been criminally indicted over her handling of the case, which went to a third D.A. ’s office before being passed on to the District Attorney for Cobb County, part of the Atlanta metropolitan area.
At least one of the defense attorneys, Kevin Gough, perhaps sensing that excluding African Americans from the jury would be insufficient to guarantee his client would not pay for the crime, argued, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here.” He was protesting the presence of Rev. Al Sharpton and later Rev. Jesse Jackson and others who attended the trial to show their solidarity with the Arbery family’s fight for justice. Hundreds of Black pastors gathered outside the courtroom in response to this race-baiting.
There was a time when such tactics might have been more successful. “It wasn’t too long ago in Georgia that three white men could kill a Black man and did not stand a very good chance of being held to account by an all white jury,” Charlie Bailey, who once worked in the Fulton County, Georgia, prosecutor’s office, told the Times.
Nor can one conclude from this verdict that the courts in Georgia, or anywhere else in the U.S., can now be relied on to dispense justice. One just verdict, however welcome, does not support such a claim. As Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones said following the verdict, “I never thought this day would come.… I just want to tell everyone thank you for those who marched, for those who prayed.” As his father Marcus Arbery said, “We conquered that lynch mob.”
Future vigilantes, however, may think twice before attempting such a lynching again. The outcome of this case is one more step forward in the long battle for genuine equality for African Americans and for the extension of democratic rights to all.
It is hard to say whether, and to what degree, last year’s mass protests against police brutality and racism may have had an impact on the outcome of this trial. There is no direct evidence. But as Ahmaud’s mother said, we can be thankful to all those who took to the streets. They improved the odds for justice.