It’s all over the news, two white guys shot a black man in Georgia while he was jogging because they thought he was a burglar. The racial aspect touched a nerve, which was compounded because Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael took the law into their own hands. It looked like the Trayvon Martin fatal shooting all over again. And things got worse when more details started coming out.
So is this a modern day racist lynching, as some like Al Sharpton are claiming, or is it merely an unfortunate situation? Now it’s too early to pass judgment, since the men are entitled to a jury trial in a court of law. We don’t know all of the facts yet. But we do know quite a few, and the main controversy seems to come down to the men’s decision to follow Armery.
People were outraged that the men were not arrested right away. It took the release of a video of the shooting a couple months later, invoking loud protests, to arrest them.
The prosecutor for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, Jackie Johnson, recused herself because the elder McMichael had worked in her office. The next prosecutor assigned to the case, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, also recused himself because his son worked for Johnson’s office.
Shortly before the shooting occurred, a neighbor of the McMichaels called 911 and said a black man had entered a house that was under construction nearby. The McMichaels say they saw Arbery jogging and got into their truck to follow him. Now anyone in law enforcement will tell you it’s not a good idea as a citizen to accost someone who is not in the process of committing a crime. If Arbery had burglarized homes, he wasn’t burglarizing one when they saw him jogging down the road.
But the law is vague about timing. In Georgia, the private citizen’s arrest statute says, “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” The McMichaels apparently thought Arbery had just come from robbing a home.
Prosecutors initially told the police not to arrest the two men, saying they were acting within Georgia’s citizen’s arrest and self-defense statutes. However, Arbery family attorney S. Lee Merritt says the most Arbery was doing was trespassing, which doesn’t justify a citizen’s arrest. Those who know Arbery say he was known for jogging in that area.
The McMichaels said they yelled, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you.” The elder McMichael said his son got out of the car with a shotgun. He said Arbery started to violently attack Travis and the two started fighting over the shotgun. Travis then shot Arbery three times. Arbery did not appear to be armed.
Barnhill said in his letter recusing himself that the older McMichael had previously investigated Arbery. CNN obtained a text message that was sent to a homeowner by a Glynn County police officer instructing him to contact Gregory McMichael if he saw a burglar on his security cameras.
Barnhill also said that Arbery had a criminal history. Arbery was indicted for bringing a gun to a high school basketball game when he was 19. He was arrested in 2018 for shoplifting. Barnhill said he believed the shooting was justified as a citizen’s arrest. He questioned whether maybe Arbery had caused the shotgun to be fired.
The McMichaels claim Arbery looked like a suspect in a string of burglaries. Travis McMichael called 911 several days before the shooting to report a man going into a house. One homeowner said he has previous video of a man entering his property and stealing fishing tackle. But Glynn County Police Lt. Cheri Bashlor said just one burglary in the neighborhood had been reported, theft of a firearm in an unlocked car outside the McMichael’s home. And Larry English, who owned the home under construction, said nothing had ever been stolen from the home.
George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, was acquitted of charges by a jury that found he was acting in self-defense. Zimmerman got out of his car and followed Martin because he thought he was a burglary suspect and was behaving suspiciously. There was evidence there had been a scuffle, since Zimmerman had a bloody nose along with lumps and two cuts on his head.
The two shootings are so similar there is a very good chance a jury will acquit the McMichaels. So should people be outraged? The problem likely lies in the law. Perhaps citizen’s arrest laws need to be narrowed to make it clear that citizens can only arrest suspects at the time of the crime, not 20 minutes later. It’s the concept of private citizens chasing after a suspect who isn’t in the process of committing a crime that bothers people. It makes it look like the people in pursuit are escalating the chances of violence.
Lindsay McMichael, the sister and daughter of the suspects, has come forward saying that the two are not racist, that they have always approved of her nonwhite boyfriends.
This doesn’t appear to be a racist hate crime. It’s most likely a situation where the law failed and needs to be revised. As a former police officer, the senior McMichael no doubt knew the citizen’s arrest law well, having encountered people using it while on the beat. He thought he was within his rights to follow Arbery. But it doesn’t mean it was a good judgment call.