For more than seventy days after the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery on February 23rd, it seemed as if there was very little legal action taking place. But in the past week, there’s been a flurry of national attention to not only the killing but the response of Georgia’s legal system. That response is now becoming the focus of the story, far more than the details of the shooting itself. As a result of widespread criticism and questions over how the case was originally handled, the state’s Attorney General has now requested a federal investigation into the matter, seeking to determine if the police and the local District Attorney conducted an unbiased investigation into the events of that day. (NBC News)
Georgia’s attorney general asked the U.S. Justice Department on Sunday to investigate how local authorities handled the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement that local prosecutors had not informed his office that they had advised police on whether Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, should be arrested after Arbery was killed Feb. 23 in Brunswick.
Arbery, 25, who was black, was shot to death after being chased by white men in a pickup truck. Arbery was unarmed and on a jog at the time of his death, his family says.
This does sound like the next logical step in the investigation. The actual facts of the case no longer seem to be in dispute. The police know all of the pertinent physical details of the shooting including where and when it happened, the weapons used and the identities of all the people involved. The McMichaels aren’t trying to say they didn’t shoot Arbery. The only remaining questions relate to how the situation escalated so quickly and if there is some justifiable reason for them to open fire that would shield them from criminal liability.
As more details emerge, it’s becoming clear that it’s not true that nothing happened on the legal front in the aftermath of the shooting. Because of where it took place, the case would normally have been handled by the Brunswick Circuit District Attorney’s Office. But that’s the same office where the elder McMichael had previously worked as an investigator. To avoid any possible conflicts of interest, the DA asked the Attorney General to reassign the case to nearby Waycross Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill on February 27th, four days after the shooting. That sounds like a routine and appropriate step to take.
That’s when things begin to get a bit fuzzy. When the switch in DA offices was made, attorneys from both offices failed to provide any feedback to the AG. Then Barnhill sat on the case for more than a month, taking no action until April 3rd. At that point, he reaffirmed an “initial opinion” made by local prosecutors the day after Abery’s death, recommending that no arrests be made.
Barnhill’s initial position was made clear in a letter he sent to the Glynn County Police Department that was recently released to the press. In it, he opined that the McMichaels had “solid first-hand probable cause to chase Arbery, a burglary suspect, and stop him.” He went one step further, stating that “Travis McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself under Georgia law.”
But the Brunswick Judicial District DA, Jackie Johnson, is saying that nobody in her office told the police not to arrest the McMichaels. Of course, by the same token, she’s not saying that they did tell the police to arrest them either. Granted, the case had already been transferred over to the Waycross Circuit by that point, but Johnson still clearly seemed to be involved in some fashion if she was issuing opinions. Doesn’t that sound a bit strange to say the least? You’ve got a dead man who was unarmed and two shooters who have been identified, and for more than a month you can’t even make a decision as to whether or not you’re going to prosecute or if they should be charged and placed under arrest?
It would be easy to leap to conclusions at this point because the optics of all this just stink. It’s not hard to imagine the local police and prosecutors quickly deciding that the McMichaels shouldn’t take the fall for this and moving to write the whole thing off as justifiable homicide and put it behind them. And that’s what almost happened until that video went viral. But now we’re learning that there was at least some sort of initial investigation. The prosecutors had that initial video the whole time and determined Travis McMichael acted in self-defense.
That sounds unlikely to me, based only on the initial video, but now that the AG is on the case I suppose it’s his problem. Sooner or later we’re likely to wind up at trial unless Carr determines the same thing the local DA did. And if it does go to trial, you can bet that the McMichaels’ attorney will opt for a jury trial rather than a bench trial. Letting one judge handle it would risk the possibility of a conviction on some sort of charge. But with a full jury, their lawyer would only need to find a couple of “like-minded individuals” to sit in the jury box and the prosecution’s case would likely fail.