In February, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed, 25-year-old black man, was shot to death while jogging in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, after being pursued by two white men in a pickup truck. Neither of his pursuers, a father and son named Gregory and Travis McMichael, were arrested or charged with a crime until May, even though Gregory admitted to police that Travis was responsible for the shooting. Gregory claimed that Arbery resembled a suspect who had committed burglaries in the area, but had no evidence of any wrongdoing by Arbery except the color of his skin. It seemed to many like a clear-cut case of deadly racial profiling. And now, according to attorneys for Arbery’s family, the Department of Justice will investigate the case as a possible hate crime.
On May 7 — more than two months after the shooting — the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced that Gregory and Travis McMichael had been taken into custody and charged with aggravated assault and murder. A statement from the GBI says that “Gregory and Travis McMichael confronted Arbery with two firearms. During the encounter, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery.” On May 10, Georgia’s attorney general asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an investigation into how the case was handled. And on May 21, a third person — William “Roddie” Bryan — was arrested in connection with Arbery’s death, and charged with murder and attempted false imprisonment.
Arbery’s death became a national flashpoint two days before the McMichaels’ arrest, when graphic video of the incident, filmed by a man who joined the McMichaels in pursuing Arbery, was posted (and then deleted) by a radio station. It quickly went viral. In the video, Arbery can be seen running down the street, when he comes across a truck stopped in the middle of the road. A white man is standing beside the open driver’s seat door, brandishing a gun, and another is standing in the truck bed. Arbery attempts to go around the vehicle, then struggles briefly with one of the men, before gunshots can be heard. Afterward, he drops to his knees, mortally wounded.
After the video circulated, national political figures demanded justice for Arbery’s family, and many compared Arbery’s death to the murder of Trayvon Martin, who was also shot after being pursued, and Botham Jean, who was murdered in his own apartment. Here’s what we know so far.
Who was Ahmaud Arbery?
Arbery was a 25-year-old from the Brunswick, Georgia, area, a former star high-school linebacker who liked to stay in shape and was an avid jogger, according to his family. His mother lives a few miles away from the Satilla Shores neighborhood, which is where he was running on the afternoon of Sunday, February 23, at around 1 p.m. He was wearing a white T-shirt, shorts, running shoes, and a bandanna.
What does the video show?
The video depicting Arbery being shot was first posted online by WGIG, a local radio station in Brunswick, before it was quickly taken down. (Later, a criminal-defense lawyer who had informally consulted with Travis and Gregory McMichael revealed he had leaked the footage.) Lee Merritt, the attorney representing Arbery’s family, reposted the video on Twitter, after which it went viral. Per Vox, this is what it shows:
As the vehicle turns a bend in a road, a black man wearing a white shirt — what Arbery was described as wearing in 911 calls — can be seen running. A white pickup truck blocks his path; a white man is in the street next to the driver’s side of the truck, and another stands in the flatbed. The video is blocked by the dashboard for a moment, and some unintelligible yelling can be heard. The video then shows the black man trying to run around the truck by way of the passenger’s side.
It’s not possible to see what happens next, but there’s a gunshot; the black man and the white man who was standing in the road reappear in the frame, engaged in a struggle, and move off the road, again leaving the video’s frame. As the man in the flatbed brings up his firearm, there’s another gunshot … A longer version available online features a third gunshot, and the black man falling to the pavement, his shirt seemingly red with blood.
In a statement accompanying the video, Merritt wrote:
The video clearly shows Mr. Arbery jogging down the road in the middle of the day. Two armed assailants, known to be Gregory and Travis McMichael, are parked ahead of Mr. Arbery … Mr. Arbery makes multiple attempts to avoid the armed strangers before the first shot is heard. Mr. Arbery then appears to collide with the attacking gunman, now known to be Travis McMichael. Mr. Arbery then struggles for the gun and in defense of his life. At this point Travis McMichael shoots Mr. Arbery two additional times with a shotgun at point-blank range …
Mr. Arbery had not committed any crime and there was no reason for these men to believe they had the right to stop him with weapons or to use deadly force in furtherance of their unlawful attempted stop. This is murder.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, told CBS that the footage “proves that my son was not committing a crime. He was out for his daily jog and he was hunted down like an animal and killed.” Benjamin Crump, who represents Arbery’s father, told the Associated Press, “The video is very clear that they were on the truck with guns hunting him down. I don’t know what more you need to make an arrest.” On May 12, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released Arbery’s autopsy report. His wounds — two gunshots to the chest, and a “deep, gaping, shotgun graze” on his wrist, “sustained during a struggle for the shotgun,” per the report — align with the events that unfold in the video. The shots reportedly damaged Arbery’s right lung, while also fracturing his upper left arm and shoulder blade.
Do we know who filmed the video?
Yes: 50-year-old William “Roddie” Bryan reportedly recorded the footage. In an interview with the Today Show weeks before Bryan was arrested, his attorney, Kevin Gough, argued that his client was just “a witness to the tragic shooting.” Gough said Bryan was standing in his yard when he saw Arbery run by, and got in his car to follow and film him because “there had been a number of crimes in the neighborhood, and he didn’t recognize him and a vehicle that he did recognize was following him.” The vehicle Bryan recognized would’ve belonged to the McMichaels. Bryan now faces charges of murder and attempted false imprisonment.
What does the police report say?
The New York Times obtained a police report from the incident, dated February 23, which includes only the account of Gregory McMichael, 64 — a former county police officer and a former investigator with the local district attorney’s office. McMichael told police he was in his front yard when he saw Arbery “hauling ass” down the street, and called to Travis, 34, “The guy is running down the street, let’s go.” By “the guy,” he said was referring to a suspect in two recent neighborhood burglaries, neither of which he had directly witnessed. McMichael claimed that surveillance video of one of the incidents had been captured, and that Arbery matched the person in the footage. On recordings from two 911 calls made at the time, other people in the predominantly white neighborhood reported Arbery for being in the area; one caller said, “I’m out here at Satilla Shores. There’s a black male running down the street.”
The McMichaels got in their pickup truck, armed with a .357 magnum and a shotgun, and began chasing Arbery through the neighborhood. A neighbor, William “Roddy” Bryan, is named as joining them. (Georgia Bureau of Investigation director Vic Reynolds has confirmed that Bryan shot the video of Arbery’s death and that there could be charges brought against him as well; Bryan is now facing calls for his arrest.) Gregory McMichael told police that when they eventually caught up with Arbery, they shouted, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” and that when Travis exited the car with his shotgun, Arbery attacked him. During a struggle over the gun, the report states, Travis fired two shots. Arbery died at the scene. Gregory McMichael told police he had turned Arbery’s body over “to see if the male had a weapon.” Arbery was unarmed.
What ‘burglaries’ was Gregory McMichael referring to?
It’s unclear. Gregory McMichael told the police that there had been “several break-ins” in the area, but in more than seven weeks before the shooting, the only reported theft in Satilla Shores was of a 9mm pistol stolen from Travis McMichael’s unlocked truck. The surveillance footage Gregory McMichael referred to — which he claimed depicted a suspect that matched Arbery — was from a property under construction in the neighborhood owned by Larry English.
English told the Daily Beast that Arbery was indeed seen on surveillance footage of the construction site on the day he was killed (his aunt confirmed his identity in the video). But English maintains that nothing was disturbed; the video shows Arbery wandering around for a few minutes, then jogging away. “This video is consistent with the evidence already known to us,” lawyers for the Arbery family told CNN. “Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog. He stopped by a property under construction where he engaged in no illegal activity and remained for only a brief period.” English’s attorney has also released several months of video surveillance footage to CNN, which shows other people trespassing on the property: An unidentified man and a woman and some children, on separate occasions, are among those seen on video. Only Arbery was pursued and harmed.
What do we know about Gregory and Travis McMichael?
Gregory McMichael was a police officer before working as an investigator employed by the district attorney’s office; but per the Washington Post, McMichael’s law enforcement certification and power to arrest had been suspended in February 2019 because he failed to complete mandatory training, including firearms training. McMichael was required to give up his badge and weapon, and retired three months later in May.
Travis McMichaels was involved in a different confrontation with an unidentified black man at Larry English’s property just two weeks before Arbery was killed. On February 11, neighbor tasked with watching the property texted English to tell him that Travis had encountered someone at the construction site and confronted him. In a 911 call made that same night, a man identifying himself as Travis says that he “caught a guy running into a house being built, two houses down from me.” He identified the man as a “black male.” (You can hear the 911 call and see surveillance video of the unidentified person on the property here.) The video shows someone walking through the site for a few seconds; English said nothing was taken or disturbed.
Why did it take so long for Gregory and Travis McMichael to be arrested and charged?
Two prosecutors assigned to the case had to recuse themselves because of conflicts. First, on February 27, Brunswick district attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself because Gregory McMichael had worked for years as an investigator in her own office, up until his retirement last May. Two Glynn County commissioners have said that Johnson told police investigators to refrain from arresting Gregory and Travis in the hours after Arbery was shot, which Johnson denies.
The second district attorney on the case, George Barnhill, recused himself at the request of Arbery’s family in early April; it later came out that his son had worked alongside Gregory McMichael on a previous prosecution of Arbery. Before Barnhill recused himself, however, he wrote a letter outlining why he felt he did not have probable cause to pursue charges against the McMichaels. In the letter, he argued that they were compliant with Georgia’s open carry law, as well as laws regarding both citizen’s arrests and stand-your-ground. “It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and [William Bryan] were following in ‘hot pursuit,’ [of] a burglary suspect,” he wrote, “with solid first hand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/telling him to stop. It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia law this is perfectly legal.”
But the Arbery’s attorney, Merritt, disputed this interpretation to CNN, saying, “You actually have to be observing the crime or be in the immediate knowledge of the crime” in order to justify a citizen’s arrest, and Arbery had only been observed looking around a construction site and jogging.
On April 13, a third prosecutor, Tom Durden, took over the case. On May 5 — the day the video appeared — he formally requested that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation look into Arbery’s death. Thirty-six hours later, Travis and Gregory McMichael were booked at the Glynn County Jail. At a news conference on May 8, GBI director Vic Reynolds said their investigation was straightforward. “The video was already out, we saw it, we reviewed the rest of the file, and we made an arrest,” he said. “Probable cause was clear to our agents pretty quickly.”
What do we know about the Glynn County Police Department?
Many questions have been raised about the conduct of Glynn County police, including whether or not the department has a history of racial profiling, and about its connection to Gregory and Travis McMichael.
Newly surfaced text messages show that a GCPD officer told property owner Larry English to contact Gregory McMichael if he saw any “action” on his surveillance camera just a few months before Arbery was killed. The exchange took place in December 2019 — despite the fact that McMichael had retired in May, and his law enforcement certification had been suspended in February. On December 17, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the officer texted English, “Your neighbor … is Greg McMichael. Greg is retired Law Enforcement and also a Retired Investigator from the DA’s office. He said please call him day or night when you get action on your camera.” This raises obvious concerns about why law enforcement would encourage someone to contact a former police officer, disciplined for lack of firearms training, over the actual police department; GCPD has yet to comment. “If anybody was going to stop this from happening it was law enforcement,” Arbery’s lawyer, S. Lee Merritt, said of the texts. “Instead, they encouraged it.”
Additionally, footage recently obtained by the Guardian shows that officers from the Glynn County Police Department tried to tase Arbery in a public park five years ago. On May 18, the Guardian published body camera footage from November 2017. The video shows an officer, Michael Kanago, approaching Arbery, who is sitting in his car in a public park, and demanding he leave the vehicle. When Arbery asks why the officer is bothering him, Kanago responds, “Because this area is known for drug activity.”
“You bothering me for nothing,” Arbery says. Later, when Kanago tells him that he was looking for criminal activity, Arbery replies, incredulously, “Criminal activity? I’m in a fucking park. I work!” Kanago then calls for back-up; when the second officer arrives, he attempts to taser Arbery but his taser malfunctions. He screams at the young, unarmed man to get on the ground, even though Kanago had already determined he was unarmed.
In a statement, attorneys for the Arbery family said that the video clearly depicts a “situation where Ahmaud was harassed by Glynn county police officers.” They added there was “no justifiable reason” for Arbery to be threatened with a taser, and that the video was “just a glimpse into the kind of scrutiny Ahmaud Arbery faced not only by this police department, but ultimately regular citizens like the McMichaels and their posse, pretending to be police officers.”
The GCPD has faced a series of separate scandals in recent years: Per the Guardian, the department’s police chief and three high ranking officers were indicted in March on perjury charges related to allegations they ignored evidence that an officer from the department was consorting with a local drug dealer. In 2019, the department was forced to disband a specialist narcotics force after an investigator was found to have had sex with two confidential informants. And in 2018, the GCPD lost certifications with two law enforcement bodies, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement.
Now, according to CBS, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia Bobby Christine is investigating the GCPD, and the state of Georgia, for the arrest lag in Arbery’s case and for the department’s alleged track record of civil rights violations.
What happens next?
On May 5, Durden announced that he plans to convene a grand jury to investigate the killing. However, courts in Georgia remain closed until June 13 due to the coronavirus. The McMichaels were booked into jail on May 7. And on May 10, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asked the DOJ to investigate the way the case was handled. “We are committed to a complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset. The family, the community and the state of Georgia deserve answers, and we will work with others in law enforcement at the state and federal level to find those answers,” he said in a statement. A judge from 70 miles outside of Glynn County, Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walmsley, of Savannah, will preside over the McMichaels prosecution, after five local judges recused themselves.
“We are pleased that Georgia AG Chris Carr has officially asked the Dept. of Justice to investigate the handling, and potential cover-up, of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder,” lawyers representing the Arbery family told NPR. “There are far too many questions about how this case was handled and why it took 74 days for two of the killers to be arrested and charged in Mr. Arbery’s death.”
On Monday, Arbery’s family attorney confirmed the DOJ’s plans to investigate the killing as a hate crime. As CBS reports, Georgia does not have hate crime laws on its books, but the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act allows the federal government to step in and prosecute instead.
Meanwhile, a state ballot measure already in the works before Arbery’s death would allow voters to empower Glynn County leaders to disband the police department and merge resources with the county sheriff’s office. It was introduced in January, before Arbery was killed, in response to various scandals in the department. The referendum will be voted on in November.
This post has been updated with more information.