Shooting death of Georgia jogger prompts calls for state hate-crimes law

Photo: Bert Roughton Jr.

Photo: Bert Roughton Jr.

The shooting death of an unarmed jogger near Brunswick drew widespread condemnation from Georgia politicians and prompted demands for a fuller investigation, the swift arrest of suspects and new calls for a state hate-crimes law.

Candidates for a sweep of Georgia offices, from local posts to the U.S. Senate, criticized how authorities handled the Feb. 23 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was pursued by two white men before he was fired upon. No arrests were made following the slaying.

A graphic video of the encounter that ricocheted across the internet Tuesday spurred a South Georgia district attorney to announce he would ask a grand jury to consider criminal charges against Greg and Travis McMichael – and led Gov. Brian Kemp to promise a thorough, independent state probe.

Kemp said the “absolutely horrific” video compelled him to ask Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds to “follow the facts, follow the truth and administer justice.”

“I have no doubt in my mind it will be fair and Director Reynolds and his seasoned team of investigators will work very quickly and will also be very thorough — and they’ll go wherever the truth takes them.”

Many Democrats say the shooting gives new urgency to their calls to pass hate-crimes legislation when lawmakers return to the Capitol in June. A previous law that was adopted in 2000 was declared unconstitutionally vague four years later.

Georgia is one of four states in the nation without a law that creates tougher penalties for those who commit crimes based on race, religion, sexual orientation or disability. A version passed the Georgia House last year by a 96-64 vote but stalled in the state Senate.

"If this doesn't show us that we ought to have a hate-crimes law, I don't know what will," said state Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat and member of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus. "We need to step up in the Senate and make sure this gets passed."

The measure was blocked last year by Senate Judiciary Chairman Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, who has said he's skeptical that increasing  penalties for crimes against certain people is the best approach. Other critics warned that such a law could limit free speech.

State Rep. Karen Bennett, the head of the Legislative Black Caucus, called the shooting "vigilante injustice." And many of her allies said Arbery's slaying should send an unmistakable message to state lawmakers.

"The silence of the Georgia General Assembly on many social issues is absolutely deafening," said state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. "You have a Legislature that figures out a way to wiggle around justice when it comes to these issues."

Senate leaders also face pressure from fellow Republicans to pass the measure. State Rep. Chuck Efstration, the Dacula Republican who sponsored the hate-crimes proposal, floated the possibility of tightening restrictions on "citizens arrests and other issues."

“It is now time for the Georgia Senate to do the right thing and pass the Georgia Hate Crimes Act without delay,” Efstration said.

Some other Republicans also demanded a thorough investigation of the killing, though they stopped short of demanding an arrest or legislative changes.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said he was “deeply concerned” with the events surrounding the shooting and offered his office’s resources for the inquest. And U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler called for “swift action and immediate answers.”

Democrats, meanwhile, pressed for more sweeping steps. The three most prominent Democrats challenging U.S. Sen. David Perdue blasted local authorities in unsparing terms, and one, Teresa Tomlinson, called for the arrest of the “known perpetrators.”

“This is nothing short of race-based vigilantism, which is fostered by our rudderless leaders who encourage and excuse this type of lawlessness,” the former Columbus mayor said in a statement.

"If I was out for a jog and checked out a construction site, would I have any chance of being chased and gunned down?" said state Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta, who is white. "The answer: No."

State Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick of LIthonia urged upset Georgians to attend a Friday rally -- wearing a mask -- at the Glynn County Courthouse to urge authorities to take more action.

“Just one day before I leave this earth I want to go an entire day not worried about my brothers or dad or neighbors being hunted in the streets like animals,” said Kendrick, one of the top Democrats in the Georgia House.

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