A Perfectly Legal Lynching in Georgia?

White people who kill black men in the United States often face no legal consequences. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

A Perfectly Legal Lynching in Georgia?

Killings of black men by whites are 8.5 times more likely to be ruled "justified."

The South Georgia prosecutor who advised police that there was insufficient evidence to arrest two white men involved in the fatal shooting of black runner Ahmaud Arbery called the killing "an act of justifiable homicide."

The Glynn County Police Department released a statement on Saturday regarding its investigation into the death of Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man who was jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia on February 23 when he was confronted by 34-year-old Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael, 64, before being shot dead by Travis. According to the statement, Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill "advised detectives before noon on February 24 that the act was justifiable homicide and for detectives to continue their investigation."

A Perfectly Legal Lynching?

In an April 2 memo, Barnhill wrote that the McMichaels and a third man, Bryan Williams, "were in hot pursuit... of a burglary suspect, with solid, first-hand probable cause" and that "their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived." Barnhill added that "under Georgia law, this is perfectly legal." Georgia's "stand your ground" law, passed in 2006, states that a person using force in self-defense has "no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground."

According to the initial police report in the case, Gregory McMichael told officers that he pursued Arbery because "there have been several break-ins in the neighborhood." However, the Brunswick News reported that police records showed there had been only one burglary reported in Satilla Shores in 2020--the theft of a handgun from a pickup truck parked outside Travis McMichael's home on January 1.

On the day of the fatal shooting, emergency dispatchers received two calls about a black man running in Satilla Shores. Video later emerged of Arbery entering an open property under construction, remaining there for three minutes and then jogging down the street. One of the 911 callers mentioned this. Neither caller mentioned any criminal activity, leading one dispatcher to ask, "I just need to know what he's doing wrong."

Cellphone video footage recorded by Bryan from his vehicle shows Arbery jogging down the street as the McMichaels approach and confront him in their pickup truck. Travis was driving; Gregory is seen riding in the truck bed. A struggle ensues after Travis exits the pickup with a shotgun and confronts Arbery. Three shots are then heard as Travis shoots Arbery to death in what some, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, have called a "lynching."

Good Ole Boys (and Gals)

In his April 2 memo, Barnhill wrote that "Arbery initiated the fight," and that "under Georgia law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself" before blaming the victim, whose "mental health records and prior convictions help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man."

Barnhill was the second district attorney in charge of the case, having taken over after Brunswick District Attorney Jackie L. Johnson, who had long employed Gregory McMichael -- a former Glynn County police officer--as in investigator in her office until his retirement last year, recused herself from the case. According to two Glynn County commissioners, Johnson intervened to protect the McMichaels from arrest.

"The police at the scene went to her, saying they were ready to arrest both of them," Commissioner Allen Booker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "These were the police at the scene who had done the investigation. She shut them down to protect her friend McMichael."

Commissioner Peter Murphy added that Glynn County police told him that although officers at the scene determined that they had probable cause to arrest the McMichaels, "they were told not to make the arrest" by "representatives of the DA's office."

Johnson responded by accusing Booker and Murphy of making "false accusations" against her "in an attempt to make excuses and ignore the problems at the Glynn County Police Department." According to the New York Times, "Glynn County police officers have been accused of covering up allegations of misconduct, tampering with a crime scene, interfering in an investigation of a police shooting and retaliating against fellow officers who cooperated with outside investigators." Days after Abery's killing, Police Chief John Powell, who had been hired to clean up the department, was indicted on charges related to the alleged cover-up of an officer's sexual relationship with an informant.

Long Road to Justice

According to the Glynn County police statement, Arbery's family requested that Barnhill be removed from the case because his son formerly worked alongside Gregory McMichael in the Brunswick district attorney's office and had personally handled a felony probation revocation case involving Arbery, who was convicted of shoplifting and violating probation in 2018.

This isn't the first time Barnhill has courted controversy over an issue regarding race. In 2016, he charged Olivia Pearson, a civil rights activist and the first black woman ever elected to the Douglas City Commission, with felony voter fraud and threatened to imprison her for 15 years after she helped a first-time voter use an electronic voting machine. Pearson's lawyers called her prosecution "racially motivated." It took a jury 20 minutes to find her not guilty.

Under fire to explain why it waited to release information about the Arbery shooting case to the public, the Glynn County Police Department claimed that while it "has sought justice," it did not want to "impact future prosecution." Some critics claim that the story never would have received national and global attention if it were not for the release of the cell phone video footage of the shooting two and a half months later. It took 74 days for Travis and Gregory McMichael to be arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and charged with murder and aggravated assault. "Had we not seen that video I don't think [the McMichaels] would have been charged," Bottoms told CNN on Sunday.

On May 11, the US Justice Department announced it is considering a request from Georgia Attorney General Christopher M. Carr to determine whether federal hate crime charges should be pursued against the McMichaels. President Donald Trump on Monday said he was "disturbed" by the case, calling Arbery's death "a horrible thing." Mayor Bottoms, however, accused the president of playing a role in racist violence. "With the rhetoric we hear coming out of the White House in so many ways, I think that many who are prone to being racist are given permission to do it in an overt way we otherwise would not see in 2020," she told CNN.

Fitting the Pattern

Barnhill's premature presumption of "justifiable" killing in the Arbery case fits a troubling pattern. White people who kill black men in the United States often face no legal consequences. According to a 2017 study by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization focusing on criminal justice issues, killings of black men by white people are 8.5 times more likely to be ruled "justifiable" than homicides involving other racial combinations. The study examined 400,000 US homicides in the years 1980-2014 and found significant local disparities. In Houston and Los Angeles, the killing of a black person by a white person is 12.5 times more likely to be ruled "justifiable," while the figure is 3 times in San Francisco and 2.5 times in Portland, Oregon.

The study noted that a "reasonable belief" that a person posed a threat was often sufficient to find killing them "justifiable." Police, prosecutors and juries "may be apt to give killers the benefit of the doubt," even in cases in which a killer's fear may have been irrational.

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