‘They almost got away with it’: How a leaked video led to convictions in the Ahmaud Arbery case

Nearly two years before a jury convicted three white men in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, authorities had said there was no need to arrest them.

On Wednesday, an almost all-white jury found Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan guilty in the murder of Arbery in Georgia. But the three might never have been indicted in the first place had it not been for a leaked video that prompted calls for attention to his death.

“I don’t want to be a spoilsport, but what if that video had not come out several months later?” Michael Irvin, a teacher from the Orlando, Florida, area told NBC News outside the courthouse Wednesday. “A young Black man would have been taken from his family and community with no one held responsible. That part, I can’t ignore. So, I’m happy justice was served.”

The McMichaels and Bryan were not arrested until months after they chased Arbery in a pickup truck in Satilla Shores, their neighborhood near Brunswick, on Feb. 23, 2020. Travis McMichael shot Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, with a shotgun at close range. Bryan filmed the fatal encounter on his cellphone. Only after video footage of the fatal shooting leaked online May 5, 2020, did authorities arrest the trio on felony murder charges.

In the video, Arbery jogs down a road as a white pickup truck blocks his path. He is shown running around the vehicle, and a shot is fired. Then, Arbery and another man appear to scuffle and two more shots are fired.

After the verdict, social media platforms lit up with comments from users who said the case wouldn’t have gone to trial at all if the video hadn’t thrust the case into the national spotlight and sparked an outcry.

“They almost got away with it,” one social media user tweeted. “It’s devastating that these guiltily verdicts feel like a miracle.”

Another person tweeted, “I’m happy Ahmaud Arbery’s killers are cooked. But never forget that this is not an example of the justice system working. Police didn’t arrest these men. Prosecutors didn’t want them charged. The video wasn’t released initially. It took outrage and pressure to make this happen.”

The defense had argued that the men thought Arbery was a burglar and were attempting to make a citizen’s arrest and they acted in self-defense. However, Travis McMichael admitted during the trial that Arbery hadn’t shown a weapon or threatened him or spoken to him at all before he shot him.

Travis McMichael was convicted of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony. Gregory McMichael and William Bryan were found not guilty of the malice murder charge. All three face up to life in prison.

News of the killing largely remained under wraps in the weeks that followed. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, accused Glynn County, Georgia, police and two local prosecutors of conspiring to cover up Arbery’s murder and protect the men involved in his death.

A $1 million lawsuit filed earlier this year alleges that the police department and officials with the Brunswick County District Attorney’s Office worked together to paint Arbery as a violent criminal and absolve the McMichaels and Bryan of wrongdoing. The lawsuit has been stalled amid the trial.

Just days after the shooting, Jackie Johnson, the Brunswick-area district attorney, recused herself from the case because she had worked with Gregory McMichael, a former Glynn County police officer, for decades. George Barnhill briefly took over the case. He soon recused himself but defended the actions of the McMichaels and Bryan, advising police that “he did not see grounds for the arrest of any of the individuals involved in Mr. Arbery’s death.”

Now, in a statement following the verdict, Cooper-Jones admitted that she never believed she’d see the men convicted.

“It’s been a long fight. It’s been a hard fight, but God is good,” she told reporters Wednesday. “To tell you the truth, I never saw this day back in 2020. I never thought this day would come.”

For many, guilty verdicts in Arbery case mark progress for racial justice in court

Civil rights activists, lawyers and politicians joined Ahmaud Arbery’s family in welcoming the guilty verdict in Georgia against three men charged in his murder.

“It just was a great day for my family,” Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father, told NPR in an interview with All Things Considered following the verdict. “We still got a long fight to go.”

Ahmaud Arbery, 25-year-old Black man, was chased down and fatally shot by three white men while he was jogging through their Georgia neighborhood last year. On Wednesday, a jury found the men — father and son Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan — guilty on most counts.

From left to right: Marcus Arbery, father of Ahmaud Arbery; attorney Ben Crump; Rev. Al Sharpton; Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery; and attorney Lee Merritt address the media following guilty verdicts for the defendants in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery on Wednesday in Brunswick, Ga.

Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney, said that while the outcome brings some justice and peace to Arbery’s family, it’s not cause for celebration, but for reflection.

“This case, by all accounts, should have been opened and closed … the violent stalking and lynching of Ahmaud Arbery was documented for video for the world to witness. But yet, because of the deep cracks, flaws, and biases in our systems, we were left to wonder if we would ever see justice,” Crump said in a statement following the verdict.

“We still have work to do,” he later told NPR in the joint interview with Marcus, noting that it’s just one victory in a criminal justice system that’s yielded mixed outcomes for people of color.

“We don’t want to have this burden of having videos … to give black people who are killed unjustly access to the courts, access to justice,” he said, referring to critical evidence presented in the murder trials of Arbery and George Floyd.

The killing drew national attention for what was widely viewed as yet another test case for racial justice. While the state trial did not include evidence supporting racial bias, that will be the focus of the three men’s federal hate crimes trial set for next year.

“The verdict today was a verdict based on the facts. Based on the evidence,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said at a news conference minutes after the verdict was announced.

“When you present the truth to people and they can see it, they will do the right thing,” she said. “And that’s what this jury did today in getting justice for Ahmaud Arbery.”

The American Civil Liberties Union reacted to the verdict, tweeting, “The true measure of justice is not in a verdict, but in making a future where people don’t live in fear of racialized violence. We will not stop doing the long hard work to achieve this future.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said “Arbery was the victim of a vigilantism that has no place in Georgia,” adding that he hopes the continued legal efforts can help people “move forward down a path of healing and reconciliation.”

Vice President Kamala Harris criticized the defense team for what she described as racist tactics used during the trial.

“These verdicts send an important message, but the fact remains that we still have work to do,” she said in a statement. “The defense counsel chose to set a tone that cast the attendance of ministers at the trial as intimidation and dehumanized a young Black man with racist tropes,” Harris said in a statement after the verdict was delivered.

Harris’ reference to racist tropes alludes to how defense attorney Laura Hogue cast Arbery in her closing arguments. Hogue described him as having run through the Georgia neighborhood with “with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”

Despite that, the verdict gives Crump hope. A jury comprising 10 white people and one Black person ultimately came to a verdict based “on the evidence,” he told NPR, and didn’t give into “this dog-whistle racial rhetoric.”

“They looked at Ahmaud as a human being, as an American citizen worthy of all the constitutional promises and guarantees like equality and justice,” Crump said.

As for the defense, Gregory McMichael’s team expressed disappointment as the gallery broke out of the courtroom. The elder McMichael was found guilty on eight of nine counts, one less than his son.

“I’m floored, floored with a capital ‘F,’” said Hogue, one of Gregory McMichael’s lawyers. Frank Hogue, who also represents the elder McMichael, said attorneys plan to appeal the verdict after sentencing.

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