The latest development in the Ahmaud Arbery shooting case, which took place on Memorial Day, could turn out to be a big deal, but we’ll need to be careful with the wording here in determining what it actually means. The family’s attorney, S. Lee Merritt, told reporters yesterday that he’s learned that the Department of Justice is “investigating the shooting death as a hate crime.” If that’s true, then this adds an entirely new layer to this case, and it’s one that won’t be handled in Glynn County. (A place with plenty of law enforcement issues of its own.) But there’s a long jump from the word “investigating” to the point of bringing charges. (CNN)

S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, told CNN on Monday that the US Department of Justice is investigating the shooting death as a hate crime.

Merritt said he learned about the development after meeting with United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia Bobby Christine on Thursday.

CNN has reached out to Christine for comment.

Merritt claims he got the information from the US Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, which would lend some official credence to the claim. But since neither Bobby Christine nor any DoJ spokespeople are commenting on it yet, we’re left with Merritt’s description of the conversation.

Saying that the Justice Department is “investigating” the shooting as a hate crime isn’t too far out of line with what we already knew. The Georgia Attorney General formally asked the Justice Department to look into it a couple of weeks ago and they would have at least launched a cursory investigation at a minimum in response to such a standard request. But does Merritt’s description imply that the DoJ is now formally investigating the shooting after concluding there was sufficient evidence to believe it was a hate crime? Or was Christine simply acknowledging that Justice was still going over the details to determine if it might have been a hate crime? The distinction is subtle but important because the latter implies that they may still drop it.

It would be at least a bit surprising to see the DoJ reaching a conclusion on the hate crime question so early in the process. Prosecutors are no doubt combing through everything related to the McMichaels and Roddie Bryan that they can get their hands on, including emails, texts, phone records and social media activity. Assuming there’s anything to find, it could take a while to go through it all, as we discussed when Roddie was arrested last week.

At this point, the only established facts are that Ahmaud Arbery is dead and Travis McMichael fired the fatal shots. But since the McMichaels have claimed self-defense (somehow), there is work to be done before they even arrive at a conclusion of murder. That’s tough enough in some cases, including the task of finding and seating a jury that would even convict Travis McMichael.

Going on from there to establishing that this was a hate crime is an even steeper hill to climb. It’s not enough to simply be found “Guilty of Being White While Shooting a Black Man.” There has to be something more in terms of the motive. (As always, I remain opposed to the entire concept of “hate crimes” because they are actually thought crimes, but I’m just working inside of the real-world system we have today.)

There was nothing on the audio track of the actual shooting video to suggest racial animus that I’m aware of. That’s why they’ll be looking into the aforementioned emails, texts and social media clues (if such exist) to detect some evidence that they were gunning for Arbery specifically because he was Black. If all they can find is confirmation that the McMichaels and their pals really thought Arbery was a burglar and that was the motivation for the chase, they may still wind up going down for murder, but proving a hate crime will be all but impossible.

Either way, until the Department of Justice weighs in, we’ll have to consider this to be an ongoing process. And I’m not sure how much the DoJ would say about an ongoing investigation anyway beyond simply confirming that they have people looking into it.