Before Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, There Was Ahmaud Arbery

WAYNESBORO, Ga. — Scores of mourners gathered last week at a rural cemetery for a service to mark the first anniversary of the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased by a trio of white men and shot to death on a residential street.

Mr. Arbery’s killing, on a sunny afternoon in a suburban South Georgia neighborhood, drew widespread outrage when it happened, particularly with its evocation of the tortured racial history of the South. And together with the subsequent police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, his death has contributed to the national furor over shooting deaths of Black people and the wave of protests against systemic racism.

The emotions surrounding his death are still raw, but they now must intersect with a thicket of legal issues that leave the outcome of his case very much in doubt.

At the graveside service and at a candlelight vigil in the neighborhood where he was killed, many of the mourners acknowledged that the past year has brought some progress. That included a new hate crimes measure and an ongoing bipartisan effort to remake the state’s 158-year-old citizen’s arrest law. The law was cited by an early prosecutor of the case when he argued that Mr. Arbery’s assailants had not acted illegally.

But the mourners also were steeling themselves for the possibility of more painful moments in the months to come, including a potentially explosive murder trial for the three men — Travis McMichael, who is accused of pulling the trigger; his father Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William Bryan, all of whom have been in custody in a Glynn County, Ga., jail since their arrests on murder, assault and other charges last May. If convicted, each faces life in prison without parole.

“We are not seeking revenge. We are seeking justice,” said Kenya Sullivan-Crumbley, a minister in Waynesboro, the hometown of Mr. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones. “Justice is what is right in the eyes of the Lord.”

ImageWanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, stands with a painting of her son during a candlelight vigil in his honor at New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Ga., last week. 
Credit…Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle, via Associated Press

His supporters have found allies far beyond the world of liberal activists. They include Gov. Brian Kemp, a conservative Republican who has been accused by liberals of supporting voter suppression tactics that target African-Americans, and who, as a candidate in 2018, suggested in a campaign ad that he might take vigilante action against undocumented immigrants.

Last June, Mr. Kemp signed into law a new hate crimes measure that imposes additional penalties for crimes motivated by bias. The move came a few weeks after a hearing in the Arbery case in which a Georgia investigator testified that Mr. Bryan had heard Travis McMichael use a racist slur moments after firing his shotgun at Mr. Arbery. (The investigator also said that Mr. Bryan had used racial epithets in text messages unrelated to the shooting.)

Today, Mr. Kemp is among a group of bipartisan political figures backing a bill that aims to reform the state’s citizen’s arrest law, which dates to the year of the Emancipation Proclamation and would significantly curtail the ability of anyone who is not a certified law enforcement officer to arrest someone, allowing exceptions for security guards, private investigators and a few others.

“The horrific killing of Ahmaud Arbery shook a Georgia community to its very core,” Mr. Kemp wrote in an opinion column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month. Mr. Arbery, he added, “was the victim of a vigilante-style of violence that has no place in our state, and some tried to justify the actions of his killers by claiming they had the protection of an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”

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Credit…Malcolm Jackson for The New York Times

State Rep. Bert Reeves, a Republican and the House leader, said he expects a hearing on the bill sometime next week.

Still, lawyers for Travis McMichael said the law — as it existed on Feb. 23 last year when Mr. Arbery was killed — will be central to the defense of their client, who the authorities said was captured on video firing the fatal shots after a brief confrontation.

Lawyers for Mr.Arbery’s family say he was out for an innocent jog that day. In the early afternoon, a man in the Saltilla Shores neighborhood saw Mr. Arbery enter a home under construction. There had been a string of burglaries and car thefts in the neighborhood in prior months.

The McMichaels later told police they suspected Mr. Arbery of the break-ins, and in a graphic video that captured the confrontation and killing, he can be seen running down a tree-lined street as the father and son wait up ahead for him.

Mr. Arbery and Travis McMichael, who was 34 at the time, are seen tussling over Mr. McMichael’s shotgun as Mr. McMichael shoots three times. Mr. Arbery then spins around, tries to run and falls to the pavement.

“From our review of the law — as much as no one likes what it allows Georgia citizens to do — it appears the McMichaels had the full authority of the law to engage Mr. Arbery, and to try to stop him and talk to him and hold him until the police arrived,” Jason Sheffield, one of Mr. McMichael’s lawyers, said in an interview last week.

Mr. Sheffield, echoing the analysis of one of the first prosecutors on the case, George E. Barnhill, also said that Travis McMichael was within his rights to fire on Mr. Arbery under the state’s self-defense law because the two men were physically fighting at the time.

Ms. Cooper-Jones, in an interview last week, said she hoped that jurors would not be swayed. “The citizen’s arrest law was implemented in the time of the Civil War,” she said. “My son’s murder happened back in 2020. You can’t hide behind that law and commit murder in 2020.”

Still, the arguments may resonate in Glynn County, where Mr. Arbery and the accused men lived, and where the trial is likely to be held. No date has been set. The county, along the southern stretch of Georgia’s Atlantic coast, is majority white and conservative — “a defense friendly venue for this type of case,” said Esther Panitch, a criminal defense lawyer and legal analyst in Atlanta.

The prosecutors and defense have sparred, in competing motions, over whether Mr. Arbery should be allowed to be called a “victim” in the case; lawyers for the McMichaels have argued that it is a “prejudicial” term.

But it is the fate of two other motions that may prove to have a more serious impact on the eventual trial. In one, prosecutors have asked that evidence of what are described as past “racial” incidents involving the three defendants be included at trial, including Facebook posts and text messages.

In another motion, lawyers for the McMichaels have asked to allow Mr. Arbery’s criminal history to be introduced, including a conviction for bringing a handgun to a basketball game and another for trying to steal a television.

The motion, citing interviews with Mr. Arbery’s neighbors, claims that he tried to break into houses around his own home, .

Medical documents reviewed by The New York Times show that Mr. Arbery was diagnosed in late 2018 or early 2019 by health care professionals with schizoaffective disorder, and that he had told doctors he heard voices in his head that at times told him “to do wrong” and “to steal and rob.”

Mr. Arbery’s family believes that his criminal past should have no bearing on whether he should have been chased and killed, especially by people who were not active law enforcement, on the mere suspicion that he might have engaged in a property crime.

“One of my friends said, ‘I wouldn’t care if he had an entire house on his back — you don’t get to do what they did,’” said Josiah Watts, Mr. Arbery’s cousin. “In a civil society there’s no way that’s the proper response, the humane response.”

Last week, Ms. Cooper-Jones filed a lawsuit against the McMichaels, Mr. Bryan and others, including Glynn County Police Department officials and the first two prosecutors who handled the case. The suit recounts how the three pursuers walked free for weeks after the killing, until an explosive video of his shooting was made public. And it argues that police and prosecutors engaged in a “deliberate effort” to “cover up Ahmaud’s murder.”

At the graveyard ceremony last Tuesday, Ms. Cooper-Jones and the many mourners watched a video message from U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, who compared her son’s killing to those of Emmett Till and Breonna Taylor. She listened as a family friend, Chuck Holmes, spoke to the audience about the nature of wickedness.

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Credit…Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Mr. Holmes quoted from the 58th Psalm: “Make their weapons useless in their hands. May they be like snails that dissolve into slime.”

The crowd lit candles as someone played a recording of an old spiritual. “I sing because I’m happy,” the lyrics went. “I sing because I’m free.”

But in the crowd, there was little singing.

“We are not seeking revenge. We are seeking justice,” said Kenya Sullivan-Crumbley, a minister in Waynesboro, the hometown of Mr. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones. “Justice is what is right in the eyes of the Lord.”

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