Brunswick shooting summons old scars, fresh suspicions

Wanda Jones-Cooper with her son, Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was killed by the son of a former Glynn County police officer in February.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

The SCLC demands a federal inquiry

Ahmaud Arbery never stopped training. Dreams of a football career had long ago fizzled, but staying in shape was not an option for the well-sculpted Brunswick native, said a close friend.

“He had to run,” said Akeem Baker, 26. “That was his therapy.”

Baker is convinced his friend was jogging on Feb. 23 when he passed through Satilla Shores, a mostly white community within a few miles of his home.

Greg McMichael saw it differently. He would later tell police he recognized Arbery, who was black, from surveillance video that captured a recent burglary in his neighborhood. McMichael, 64,  grabbed his .357 Magnum, called out to his son, Travis, and jumped into his pickup truck in pursuit of Arbery, 25.

They caught up to him a few blocks away and said Arbery became violent when confronted, according to a police report. Two shots were fired by Travis McMichael, 34. Arbery, clad in shorts and a T-shirt, died at the scene.

No arrests have been made. No weapon was recovered from Arbery, according to the police report.

“Running while black” is how prominent attorney James Yancey Jr. summed up his fate. Yancey is not involved in the case but has followed it closely.

A state-appointed prosecutor is investigating and the Southern Poverty Law Center urges federal action.

“We demand an immediate investigation by federal officials into Ahmaud’s death given local law enforcement’s failure to act,” SCLC President and CEO Margaret Huang said in a statement on Thursday. “The killing of black and brown people must stop, and it begins with each of us demanding accountability and justice.”

Greg McMichael is a former Glynn County police officer. Some question if his influence played a role in authorities’ decision not to bring charges.

“There’s a lot of suspicion of law enforcement down here,” Baker said.

He’s started a Facebook page, “I Run With Maud,” in hopes of spreading awareness about the case.

“I want (investigators) to know they’ve got a lot of eyes watching them,” he said.

The McMichaels did not respond to requests for comment.

FAMILY CONNECTIONS

Greg McMichael most recently worked as an investigator with the district attorney’s office. His former boss, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, recused herself from the case. Waycross Judicial Circuit  County’s top prosecutor, Roger Barnhill, took over but stepped aside a month later at the request of Arbery’s family. Barnhill’s son works as a prosecutor in Johnson’s office.

Johnson and Barnhill did not respond to requests for comment.

The Rev. John Davis Perry, II, president of the NAACP’s Brunswick chapter, said “there is some tension with this case going before its third DA.”

“This has caused many to raise the question, will this be another national case where our legal system fails to be a system of justice for all?” Perry said.

Yancey said Johnson should’ve known there would still be a conflict of interest.

“More likely they thought no one would find out,” he said.

A TAINTED HISTORY

Earlier this year, the Georgia Senate passed a bill inspired by a string of scandals at the Glynn County Police Department. It would allow voters to abolish their county police, handing law enforcement duties over to the sheriff.

In February, Glynn's police chief and three former high-ranking officers were indicted on charges that they ignored evidence about a fellow officer accused of consorting with a drug dealer.   

Glynn police’s narcotics squad has been especially troubled. One former officer was caught having sex with two confidential informants. There were also allegations of evidence suppression in a fatal police chase.

District Attorney Johnson, meanwhile, drew considerable criticism after an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found that she had assisted Glynn police officers in their defense against possible prosecution for the death of Caroline Small, shot and killed following a low-speed chase. The GBI’s lead supervisor on the case called it the worst police shooting he’d ever investigated.

RELATED: Did Caroline Small have to die?

A grand jury cleared the officers in 2011 after the Glynn police department interfered with the GBI probe, the AJC’s investigation found.

Small’s death continues to haunt local law enforcement officials. In 2018, one of the officers involved in the shooting killed his estranged wife and her male friend before taking his own life.

‘HIS SPIRIT WAS SO HUMBLE’

As a teenager, Arbery was arrested for bringing a handgun into the Brunswick High gymnasium during a basketball game. When an officer spotted the .380 caliber handgun in his waistband, Arbery took off running.

Arbery was sentenced to five years’ probation as a first offender on charges of carrying a weapon on campus and several counts of obstructing a law enforcement officer. He was convicted of probation violation in 2018 after he was charged with shoplifting, court documents show.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said her son shouldn’t be judged solely on previous misdeeds.

“I knew that was going to come out,” said Cooper-Jones, 47. “He wouldn’t harm a flea. His spirit was so humble.”

“I think I raised him well,” she said.

But supporters of the McMichaels say Arbery’s past can’t be ignored.

“(McMichael) was protecting his neighbors from what he thought was an intruder,” said Arthur E. Libbin, a retired Glynn County  EMT who has followed the case with great interest. “I’ve got eight German shepherds. If someone breaks into my neighbor house, they’re going to be cut loose.”

VIDEO EVIDENCE?

In documents obtained by The New York Times, Barnhill wrote to Glynn police that stated that a video showed Arbery "burglarizing a home immediately preceding the chase and confrontation."

He also cited a video of the shooting in which Arbery can be seen grabbing for Travis McMichael’s gun. Neither video has been released to the public.

The Times reported that Barnhill concluded criminal charges were not warranted, that McMichael acted in his own defense.

But the decision whether to prosecute now lies with Tom Durden, the longtime district attorney for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit.

Barnhill’s opinion will be considered but “the final decision is going to be all mine,” he said.

Durden said he knew nothing of the case before it was assigned to him by State Attorney General Chris Carr.

While declining to discuss details about the case, he noted that the investigation by police “was handled very professionally.”

Critics say the initial inquiry lessened any possibility of criminal charges.

“I mean, there’s no probable cause for self-defense,” Yancey said. “You just can’t shoot someone because you think he might have done something. At the very least there should’ve been a charge of manslaughter.”

When Georgia’s stand your ground law is invoked, indictments can be difficult to secure, said Marietta criminal defense attorney Philip Holloway. The law states that a person has no duty to retreat from another person threatening violence and can legally use force against the attacker.

“What really matters is what was in the head of the shooter,” said Holloway, a former prosecutor. “Was it reasonable for him to believe, in the totality of the circumstances, that (Arbery) was armed?”

Any possible involvement by Arbery in the neighborhood break-ins is immaterial, said Holloway.

“The operative moment in time was when the trigger was pulled,” he said, though adding if compelling evidence linking Arbery to the crimes surfaces, prosecutors might be more reluctant to press charges.

A MOTHER’S SEARCH FOR ANSWERS

The call came around sunset, more than five hours after her son’s death. Cooper-Jones remembers the conversation with a Glynn police officer well, reciting it as if reading from a transcript.

“Your son was involved in a robbery,” Cooper-Jones said she was told. “There was a confrontation with a homeowner. There was a fight over the handgun. Your son was shot, and he was shot multiple times.”

“That last sentence was the only thing they told me that was true,” she said. “They started telling me lies with that very first phone call.”

Cooper-Jones said she is skeptical justice will be served.

“It’s the good ole boy network,” she said. “It still exists and it still matters.”

Perry, the local NAACP leader, is encouraging Arbery’s supporters to inundate the Atlantic Judicial Circuit DA’s office with phone calls supporting criminal charges.

If no charges are brought, talk of a cover-up will only grow louder, Yancey said.

“The more information that comes out about this case, the worse it sounds,” he said. “So, so suspicious.”

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