Skip to content

Ahmaud Arbery suspects’ trial defense taps racist legal legacy

Ahmaud Arbery

Gregory McMichael, his son Travis and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., three White men, are on trial in Brunswick, Georgia, for the February 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man. The killing was videoed by Bryan, who according to his lawyer, willingly shared it with police and was cooperating with the investigation, reports NBC News

Gregory McMichael is a retired investigator for the local district attorney’s office and a former Glynn County police office. None of the three White men were initially arrested when police first arrived at the scene. It was not until Bryan’s video appeared online two months later that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case,  local prosecutor was removed and and they were charged with crimes. All three defendants have pleaded not guilty.

This month, it is not simply three men on trial in a Glynn County courtroom; the legitimacy of citizen’s arrest laws,  and the racist heritage of the United States are on trial there as well. The defense is expected to argue the attack was legitimate under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest and self-defense laws. Currently, nearly every U.S. state permits citizen’s arrests in one form or another.

Citizen’s arrest statues were added to Georgia’s legal code in an effort to replace slave patrols, because local militias were part of the Confederate Army defending Richmond, Virginia, and slaves were fleeing to Union lines. The law essentially authorized any White Georgian to seize and hold any Black person under suspicion that they were an escaped slave. The Georgia legal code was last revised in 2010, but the citizen’s arrest provision remained essentially unchanged until Arbery’s death.

After Arbery’s death, Georgia passed hate crime legislation and the citizen’s arrest law was overwhelmingly repealed by the Georgia state Legislature But a new law does permit citizen’s arrests in some cases, including by off-duty police officers, requiring that in such cases police officials must be contacted within a “reasonable amount of time,” or else the person must be released. While signing the new bill, Gov. Brian Kemp, A Republican, conceded Georgia was “replacing a Civil War-era law ripe for abuse.”