OPINION: Justifiable horror over Arbery case as justifiable homicide

Emotional day in court as Ahmaud Arbery shooting video is shown during bond hearing.
Emotional day in court as Ahmaud Arbery shooting video is shown during bond hearing.

For the month of May, the Ahmaud Arbery case had become a national exposition on race.

Then George Floyd got slowly smothered by a Minneapolis cop and the Arbery killing was largely pushed off to the side as the nation debated, argued and even fought over racial justice and policing.

Now Arbery is front and center again as a judge denied bond last week to former lawman Greg McMichael and his son, Travis, in the shotgun killing of the Black man in the Brunswick area of southeast Georgia. The case first gained wide notoriety because, the narrative said, a Black man was chased down on Feb. 23 and lynched by a group of whites simply because he was jogging where he shouldn’t have been.

Actually, there is much more to the case, and simple storylines often become weighed down by facts. Suffice it to say this was a nasty, ugly, stupid killing that was the result of race, fear, anger and assumptions.

Early this year, the neighborhood of Satilla Shores, a largely white middle-class community, was on edge and seething because there were cases of trespassing and some car break-ins, including a couple that netted guns. One of those weapons came from Travis McMichael’s truck on Jan. 1. And a young Black man had been spotted entering a nearby house under construction at least a couple of times prior to Feb. 23.

In all, residents called the cops at least 87 times in the previous six months. It was enough for the younger McMichael to go on social media and tell his neighbors to “arm up.”

His attorney, Robert Rubin, tried to capture the mood of the community while arguing for his client to get bond: “We’re under attack. We’re being ripped off left and right. We have to protect ourselves.”

“And now they have guns, by the way. Whoever they are. Our guns. We’ve got to be careful,” Rubin said.

In this image made from video, father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, from left, accused in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, listen via closed circuit TV in the Glynn County detention center in Brunswick on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, as lawyers argue for bond to be set at the Glynn County courthouse. (AP Photo/Lewis Levine)
In this image made from video, father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, from left, accused in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, listen via closed circuit TV in the Glynn County detention center in Brunswick on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, as lawyers argue for bond to be set at the Glynn County courthouse. (AP Photo/Lewis Levine)

Credit: AP Photo/Lewis Levine

Credit: AP Photo/Lewis Levine

It was that communal siege mentality that had Greg McMichael and son grab their guns and jump into a pickup truck on a Sunday afternoon after seeing Arbery coming from near that house under construction where a prowler had been spotted before. In their minds, he was the guy and this was their chance.

“He makes frequent trips through the neighborhood and gets caught on video camera like every third or fourth night, breaking into places, and nobody’s been able to catch him,” Greg McMichael told cops and the coroner on the scene, way overstating the frequency of the sightings. “I was standing out in my front yard and he comes running by — and I’m not talking about trotting, I’m talking about hauling ass past my house. I ran inside to get my son.”

The McMichaels, in their truck, and neighbor Roddie Bryan in his own pickup chased Arbery up and down the streets of the subdivision with their quarry trying frantically to avoid his pursuers. Finally, the chase teams trapped Arbery, who tried to run around the McMichaels’ truck, only to see Travis jump out and level a shotgun at him. Arbery went after him, probably believing his only chance at survival was a desperate dash at a dude with a shotgun.

It was a fatal decision, one caught on video by Bryan in all its gory detail.

ExploreAJC coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting

The McMichaels are waging a defense that claims they had a right to make a citizen’s arrest and, in doing so, were forced to employ a fatal dose of self-defense. The GBI in earlier hearings said it was more a case of a terrified Arbery trying to defend himself, which, in turn, caused his demise.

A tape of a jailhouse phone call of Greg McMichael, a former cop and longtime investigator for the Brunswick district attorney’s office, indicates he was torn up by the killing. But not terribly.

“I try to sleep; I can’t,” McMichael tells a male visitor. “I wake up every 15 or 20 minutes, you know. It’s bothering me.”

Then, either McMichael or a male visitor (it’s unclear) says, “You’ve heard the old saying no good deed goes unpunished.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” said the prisoner. “That’s a shining example right there.”

In the hearing, prosecutor Jesse Evans told the judge, “Defendant Greg McMichael has vigilante views, at a minimum.”

At a maximum, he and his son harbored racist views and the prosecutor produced social media activities that certainly spoke to that. In a previous hearing, a GBI agent testified that Bryan told authorities that he heard Travis McMichael say “f-----g n-word,” as Arbery lay dying nearby.

Laura Hogue, a defense attorney, dismissed that as a desperate co-defendant trying to gin up testimony to save his own hide. She said Bryan didn’t tell investigators this until his fourth interview. She added that a 911 call from Travis McMichael’s cellphone remained live during the killing and no such expletives were recorded.

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Hogue and Rubin argued that their clients were solid citizens without criminal records and were military veterans who’d both saved people’s lives. These contentions were dismissed by prosecutor Evans, saying this was not the time to give them “gold stars” for past events.

The case sparked controversy and drew intense scrutiny after Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, the elder McMichael’s former boss, passed the case to George Barnhill, a DA in another circuit. Barnhill then sat on the case and later said the McMichaels were right in chasing and killing Arbery.

The GBI took over and quickly thought otherwise, charging the McMichaels with murder. Johnson, the Republican incumbent for a decade, was defeated this month by an independent candidate, an almost unheard of occurrence.

But at its core, the case calls out the role and limits of an increasingly armed citizenry in “protecting” themselves and “defending” their communities. Does it involve strapping up and going out and getting it done when you have a hunch, or you think you have right on your side?

Hundreds of people participate in a rally outside the Glynn County Courthouse seeking justice for Ahmaud Arbery on May 16, 2020, in Brunswick. A caravan of people left a southwest Atlanta church Saturday morning for coastal Brunswick to take part in the protest. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Hundreds of people participate in a rally outside the Glynn County Courthouse seeking justice for Ahmaud Arbery on May 16, 2020, in Brunswick. A caravan of people left a southwest Atlanta church Saturday morning for coastal Brunswick to take part in the protest. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

It seems Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley thinks not.

In announcing his decision to keep the McMichaels locked up, the judge said he did not see strong evidence, or really any at all, that Arbery was stealing stuff from homes.

“There’s nothing to indicate to me he was known as the guy” stealing or trespassing in the neighborhood, Walmsley said. “Which tells me that an anonymous person was chased through the neighborhood to be detained for trespass and burglary.”

“And that somehow resulted in individuals thinking it was appropriate to block that individual’s path of travel, shoulder a firearm in order to get him to stop. There is a significant danger to all of those actions,” the judge said. “Individuals who do that need to be aware of the fact they can end up exactly where they are now.”

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