GBI to launch state investigation into Brunswick area shooting

Wanda Cooper-Jones with her son, Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot to death in February.

Wanda Cooper-Jones with her son, Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot to death in February.

In a span of 12 hours, a video showing the final moments of a young Brunswick man’s life upended assumptions about what would happen to the father and son under investigation for fatally shooting 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.

Brunswick attorney James Yancey said he believes Greg and Travis McMichael would have avoided criminal charges if not for the video. “It showed the depths of humanity,” Yancey said.

Now, the investigation enters a whole new phase. GBI agents will now be asking the questions, backed by assurances from Gov. Brian Kemp they’ll conduct a thorough, independent probe.

Kemp had not addressed the fatal Feb. 23 shooting that happened in Glynn County, outside the Brunswick city lines, until Tuesday. As word of the video spread, the governor took to Twitter, offering the GBI’s services to  Atlantic Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden. It took the prosecutor less than an hour to accept. Earlier in the day he announced he would ask a grand jury to consider criminal charges against the McMichaels -- a long-awaited decision ultimately overwhelmed by widespread outrage over the video.

“Georgians deserve answers,” Kemp tweeted. “State law enforcement stands ready to ensure justice is served.”

Not everyone supports state intervention. In a tweet sent late Thursday afternoon from the GBI’s account, the agency noted Glynn County police, who declined to charge Travis and Greg McMichael, had not requested a review of their findings.

Instead, Glynn police asked the GBI investigate the public release of the video. The agency tweeted its honoring that request while also looking into  “allegations of threats against GCPD and individuals involved in the active investigation.”

But the video, posted on YouTube Tuesday morning, had put the onus back on local law enforcement. Was race a factor in Glynn police’s decision not to charge the McMichaels, who are white, for the killing of an unarmed black man?

Questions also surround Greg McMichael’s ties to local law enforcement. The elder McMichael was once a Glynn police officer before joining the Brunswick Judicial Circuit as an investigator in the D.A.’s office.

“Based on the video footage and the news reports I have seen, I am deeply concerned with the events surrounding the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery,” Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr tweeted Tuesday.

The video, which had been available to police and investigators since Feb. 23, the date of the shooting, appears to contradict key portions of Greg McMichael’s account to police minutes after Arbery collapses, face first, into the Georgia asphalt.

“It’s gone international now,” said Gerald Griggs, an attorney with the Atlanta NAACP. “There’s some serious anger out there.”

Attempts to reach the McMichaels and their legal representation were unsuccessful.

» Supporters launch a virtual campaign after fatal Brunswick shooting

Stills from a video released today online show Ahmaud Arbery trying to disarm Travis McMichael. Arbery collapsed to the ground a few moments later, never to regain conciousness.

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Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker was on the phone with Arbery's mother around 10 a.m. when she got word the video was circulating. Shaken, she had to get off the call.

"They must pay for killing this innocent young man, after hunting him down like a dog," Booker said.

Some have compared Arbery’s death to the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager from Sanford, Florida, killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented Martin’s parents, announced Tuesday he was now representing Arbery’s father.

“Because of the video, this is now bigger than Trayvon Martin,” Griggs said. “There is no room for speculation. The video speaks for itself.”

Arbery is seen running at a jogger’s pace in the middle of a subdivision road. Greg McMichael told police Arbery was “hauling ass.” The elder McMichael said they had followed Arbery because they believed he was responsible for a series of break-ins within their community.

The video shows Arbery attempting to run around a pickup truck where two men confront him, both armed.

Within seconds a shot is fired, then two more. In the end, Arbery collapses.

“As I’ve stated before this was instigated and perpetrated by the shooters,” said Brunswick NAACP President John Davis Perry, II. “They placed him in a position in which he had to fight for his life. This video is appalling!”

» Brunswick shooting summons old scars, fresh suspicions

There was mention of a video in the police report. And The New York Times reported that Roger Barnhill, who received the case after Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson recused herself, told Glynn police the video supported Greg McMichael’s claim his son acted in self-defense. Criminal charges, Barnhill wrote, were not warranted.

Video footage shows the fatal encounter between Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael and Ahmaud Arbery. The McMichaels say it was self-defense and had followed Arbery in their truck because they believed he was responsible for a string of burglaries in Satilla Shores. Arbery was unarmed and jogging in the Brunswick neighborhood in February.

Barnhill later recused himself following a request from Arbery’s family after they learned his son worked in the Brunswick DA’s office with Greg McMichael.

The case was then turned over to Durden, who last week told the AJC he had seen a video of the shooting. He would not say whether it influenced his decision to pursue charges.

Arbery supporters said Durden should’ve gone much further.

“This case was all kinds of backward,” Griggs said. “That video should’ve been shown to a magistrate by the police and an arrest warrant should’ve been issued for (the McMichaels).”

On Tuesday evening about 200 protesters, some wearing protective face masks, marched in Arbery’s honor on the street where he was shot. Kevin Smith, Arbery’s first cousin, led the march, alternating between angry demands of vengeance and calls for peace.

“We want the media to see that we’re together, we’re not breaking windows,” he said. “We’re not these other cities. We’re having a conversation.”

Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump, the only local elected official present, expressed sympathy for Arbery’s family.

“If he was my son, I would feel the same way,” Jump told the crowd. “This shouldn’t take so long.”

Griggs said he is calling for a federal investigation of Glynn County police for their handling of the case.

“The series of events captured on this video confirm what all the evidence indicated prior to its release — Mr. Arbery was pursued by three white men that targeted him solely because of his race and murdered him without justification,” said attorney Lee Merritt, who represents the victim’s mother.

In absence of the video, Merritt said a “false narrative was constructed where the victim was slandered as a criminal with mental health concerns.”

(As a teenager, Arbery was arrested for bringing a handgun into the Brunswick High gymnasium during a basketball game. He 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.)

The video was initially posted on a YouTube page run by radio station WGIG-FM. The station’s news director, Michael Scott Ryfun, said he decided to share the clip, sent by an anonymous source, after consulting with leaders of Brunswick’s black community.

“I came to understand part of the frustration out  there right now is the lack of information being received in this case by the public,” Ryfun explained.

Marietta criminal defense attorney Philip Holloway said while the video was deeply disturbing, some key questions remain.

“Prior to the victim falling and the first shot being fired, it appears the victim was trying to disarm the shooter,” said Holloway, a former prosecutor. “During this close quartered confrontation you have nothing short of a life and death fight for survival. I can’t tell what motivations were for the shooter, for one.

“Who shot the video? Why did they shoot the video? Why were they there in the first place?” he said.

A third man, whom Greg McMichael referred to as “Roddy,” assisted in trapping Arbery, the ex-cop told investigators. It’s not known if “Roddy” filmed the shooting.

Durden said he plans to put the case before the first available grand jury. But that may be awhile. No grand juries are being impaneled until at least June 12 due to the coronavirus. By then the system will have a backlog of three months’ worth of cases.

Holloway said if Durden wants to bring an indictment, the grand jury will follow.

“If the prosecutor wants this case to go away, the grand jury will kill it,” he said.

Wanda Cooper-Jones,  Arbery’s mother, said she was “relieved” and a little surprised by the decision to consider criminal charges.

She said she has no plans to watch the video showing her son’s final minutes alive.

“I don’t think I’d be able to take it,” she said.