After 78 days, the investigation into the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery dragged on. His mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she was skeptical the men responsible for his death would be held accountable. Protests were virtually impossible, due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus.
Twenty-four hours later, seemingly everyone was talking about it. Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted Wednesday it was clear Arbery, 25, was “killed in cold blood" and called for a "swift, full and transparent investigation into his murder." On social media the hosts of "The View" were chastised for not talking about the case.
The surge of attention, and the decision to open a state investigation, was prompted by the video — a video shot by a friend of Greg and Travis McMichael who had helped the father and son chase down and trap Arbery.
William “Roddie” Bryan, 50, is identified in police documents as the person behind the video. He is also referenced by Greg McMichael in the police report of the Feb. 23 shooting.
Bryan figures to be a part of the GBI’s investigation, which was opened Tuesday night following a request by Atlantic Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden. Earlier that day Durden announced he would ask a grand jury to “consider criminal charges” against those involved. It's not known if Bryan will be subject to charges.
"We've now assigned the case to three of our experienced supervisory agents," GBI Director Vic Reynolds said in a video tweet. "The governor in this state wants justice in this case and so does the GBI."
The GBI's investigation will be the fourth probe into the shooting. Potential conflicts of interest involving Greg McMichael, formerly a Glynn County police officer recently retired from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney' Office, turned the case into a judicial hot potato.
After Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson recused herself, the case was handed off to Waycross Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill.
In a letter sent to a Glynn County police captain, Barnhill wrote that the three men were in “hot pursuit” of a burglary suspect with “solid, firsthand probable cause.”
“It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived,” Barnhill wrote. “Under Georgia law this is perfectly legal.”
He references watching Bryan's video. While most have found it damning, Barnhill, who could not be reached for comment, wrote that the footage essentially exonerated the McMichaels. He said it shows Arbery, who was unarmed, attacking Travis McMichael, armed with a shotgun.
"Given the fact Arbery initiated the fight, at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun, under Georgia law McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself," Barnhill wrote.
Barnhill stepped down after Arbery’s family complained of a possible conflict of interest. His son worked in the Brunswick DA’s office and was acquainted with Greg McMichael.
Longtime Brunswick attorney James Yancey said he was dumbfounded by Barnhill's conclusions.
"You can't argue self-defense if you instigated the event," Yancey said. "This is the South. No black man being chased by two white men in a pick-up truck with guns is going to stay and talk to them. He had no legal obligation to do what they said. (Arbery) had every right to defend himself."
The initial handling of the investigation has led many activists to call for federal intervention.
"What we do know is that the U.S. Department of Justice can open a concurrent investigation into the murder of Ahmaud Arbery as they did in the Travon Martin murder," said Atlanta civil rights attorney Chris Stewart. Martin, 17, was killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watchman who claimed he shot the unarmed teen in self-defense. "Mr. Arbery’s civil rights were violated which can initiate an investigation by Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband who oversees the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The authority is vested in our Federal Hate Crime Laws."
Bret Williams, a former prosecutor in the Civil Rights Division, said he expects the DOJ will eventually become involved.
"One of the things a federal investigation can do is shed some sunshine into the way this case was handled," said Williams, now a criminal defense attorney. He said there is reason to suspect a cover-up by local authorities.
"This has become a case of national interest," he said.
At a video press conference Wednesday, Lee Merritt, the attorney for Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, demanded the DOJ "take over the case and bring all parties involved, including the officials that ratified these men's behavior, up on federal hate crime charges."
“These men were vigilantes, they were a posse ... performing a lynching in the middle of the day," Merritt said.
A group of Glynn County pastors and community leaders gathered Wednesday afternoon in downtown Brunswick to demand action.
“The way this case was handled was absolutely wrong,” said Brunswick NAACP President John Davis Perry II. “As citizens of the Glynn County community, we expect that justice be done swiftly and immediately.”
He called for the dismissal of Glynn County Police Chief John Powell, who’s currently on administrative leave with pay in Glynn County after being indicted on charges of three counts of violating oath of office, two counts of influencing a witness and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony. Those charges stem from an unrelated case.
“He should not be on our payroll,” Perry said.
He also called for Kemp’s involvement to ensure the case goes to a grand jury immediately. Courthouses are closed due to coronavirus concerns at the moment.
“If the governor could allow businesses to go back into operation so that we can get the economic system back flowing, then justice should be just that important as well,” he said.
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