Arbery’s death sparked big changes to Ga. laws. What’s next?

Gov. Brian Kemp (R) acknowledges Wanda Cooper-Jones (L), the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, before signing a bill overhauling Georgia's citizen's arrest law on May 10, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Gov. Brian Kemp (R) acknowledges Wanda Cooper-Jones (L), the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, before signing a bill overhauling Georgia's citizen's arrest law on May 10, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Ahmaud Arbery’s murder compelled Georgia lawmakers to overhaul two criminal justice laws for the first time in years. But some wonder whether the window has closed for major bipartisan cooperation on other issues involving race, fairness and the legal system.

Arbery’s death and the graphic video that showed him being chased by three white men and fatally shot on Feb. 23, 2020 spurred lawmakers to revive a hate crimes bill that had for years gone nowhere.

A year later, legislators made Georgia the first state in the country to repeal a Civil War-era statute that allowed residents to arrest someone they suspected of committing a crime. Prosecutors had initially cited the state’s citizen’s arrest law to justify not charging Greg and Travis McMichael and William Bryan, who have been convicted of state murder charges and federal hate crimes charges.

Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, who helped advance both proposals, said the video prompted change at the statehouse, especially among conservatives who had long feared that a new hate crimes statute could be applied unevenly by judges or used to restrict free speech rights.

“It was shocking, horrifying to legislators,” Efstration said in an interview this week.

At the time of Arbery’s death, Georgia was one of only a handful of states without a hate crimes statute on the books. The Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 had struck down a previous law for being “unconstitutionally vague,” and a hate crimes bill that had passed the GOP-led House in 2019 had been languishing in the Senate.

Sen. Harold Jones of Augusta, who was at the center of efforts to pass the bill in the Senate as Democratic whip, said the video’s sheer brutality prompted a “raw” and “honest” conversation about race that paved the way for the legislation. But momentum was almost derailed by a last-minute fight over language that would have listed law enforcement as a protected class. Democrats revolted and the provision was ultimately dropped and passed separately on a party-line vote.

What passed in summer 2020, as demonstrators took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd and the legal system’s treatment of Black men more broadly, was a bill that strengthened penalties for people convicted of crimes committed because of another’s race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Ahmaud Arbery’s death will not be in vain,” State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who helped craft the legislative compromise, said at the time. “This is a defining moment in the history of our great state.”

The following spring, Gov. Brian Kemp made overhauling the citizen’s arrest law a top priority.

The statute had been on the books in Georgia since 1863 and was used to justify white Georgians capturing slaves who were fleeing to fight in the Union Army and, decades later, lynching Black people without repercussions.

In a nearly unanimous vote, lawmakers agreed to repeal citizen’s arrest while still allowing narrow carve-outs for employees at businesses and security officers to detain someone they believe has committed a crime.

“Today, in honor of Ahmaud’s memory, we commit to taking this step forward together,” Kemp said at the bill signing ceremony as Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, watched.

Jeannine Bell, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law who’s studied hate crimes, said Georgia experienced the biggest policy changes as a result of Arbery’s death. But she said the case has brought more national attention to similar incidents in which people of color are confronted by others who believe they shouldn’t be somewhere. She cited the case of a Black FedEx driver who was chased and fired at by two white men while making deliveries in Mississippi, an incident that made national news.

“We’re seeing more reporting about these incidents that previously were known only amongst the individuals who were targeted and their friends,” she said. “They’re getting more attention and may get more charges.”

Looking ahead, some lawmakers are divided on whether there’s the political will to go farther in Georgia.

Jones said that the recent debates over redistricting and voting rules, which he believes could have produced an honest discussion about race but instead became partisan fodder, may have closed the door to cooperation for now.

“We find these openings and we allow them to close,” he said. “And quite frankly, it’s our fault as elected officials.”

Efstration is more hopeful, pointing to the years of bipartisan work on criminal justice during the tenure of former Gov. Nathan Deal. He’s advocating for a bill that would create a state commission to investigate complaints against prosecutors. He cited former Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson, who was voted out of office and later indicted, accused of “showing favor and affection” to Greg McMichael, a former colleague, and for allegedly failing “to treat Ahmaud Arbery and his family fairly and with dignity.”

“There’s still an appetite” to work in a bipartisan manner, Efstration said. “I think that it requires folks who are willing to work really in good faith with each other to discuss the real problems.”