LAST YEAR Marcus Arbery, the father of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man shot dead while out jogging in a Georgia neighborhood last February, told CNN that his son was “lynched by a racist mob”. “When you come at a young man, you jump on the back of a pick-up truck with a shotgun…and you follow him like he was an animal, and you gun him down”, that is a lynching, he argued. On November 24th, a jury evidently agreed, convicting three white men, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, and William Bryan, one of their neighbours, of murder.
In their pickup trucks, armed with a pistol and a shotgun, the three had followed Mr Arbery as he jogged through their neighbourhood, Satilla Shores, a sprawl of modest bungalows in south-eastern Georgia. They confronted him, a scuffle ensued, and Travis McMichael shot Mr Arbery three times with his shotgun, killing him on the spot.
The defence had claimed that the McMichaels acted in self-defence. (Mr Bryan’s lawyers argued he had just tagged along and was “irrelevant” to the killing.) “Ahmaud Arbery was not an innocent victim,” argued Laura Hogue, one of Gregory McMichael’s lawyers. In the defendants’ account, they were trying to conduct a legal “citizen’s arrest” because they suspected Mr Arbery of burgling homes in Satilla Shores.
Several times, including on the day he was killed, the young man had been spotted on security cameras in the unfinished home of a resident, Larry English. (Mr English’s lawyer had suggested Mr Arbery was getting water from a tap). Mr Arbery tried to run away when the McMichaels asked him to stop, the defence said, so the three men boxed him in with their pickups. According to the defence, Mr Arbery then tried to punch Mr McMichael and steal his gun, forcing him to shoot. “He chose to fight,” Ms Hogue said of Mr Abery. The shooting—though not who threw the first punch—was caught on camera by Mr Bryan.
Under the law in Georgia at the time, the circumstances in which people could make citizen’s arrests were loosely defined. There had to be “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” that the person had committed a felony and was fleeing. The elder Mr McMichael, a retired police officer, evidently saw it as his responsibility to arrest suspects in his neighbourhood rather than call the police. After the murder, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican governor, described the citizen’s-arrest provision as a “civil-war era” law, and new bipartisan legislation more tightly specified the grounds for a citizen’s arrest.
In contending with the previous law, the prosecutors successfully argued that the three men did not have reasonable grounds to suspect Mr Arbery. He had trespassed on Mr English’s property, but trespass is not a felony. There was no evidence that he had stolen anything, nor any good reason to think he had. Therefore, in trying to arrest him, Messrs McMichaels and Bryan were in fact committing felonies—false imprisonment and assault—and so forfeited any claim of self-defence. “They shot and killed him, not because he was a threat to them, but because he wouldn’t stop and talk to them,” argued Linda Dunikoski, the prosecutor.
Ms Dunikoski thus sidestepped the problem that faced the prosecutors in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, an Illinois teenager acquitted on November 19th of murder in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Mr Rittenhouse, like the McMichaels and Mr Bryan, had taken up a gun in what he said was an effort to protect property, in his case against rioters during protests of a police killing. He also claimed self-defence.
But there was little evidence Mr Rittenhouse started the fight he ended up finishing with his rifle. The jurors had to judge whether Mr Rittenhouse reasonably believed himself to be in serious danger at the moment he pulled the trigger, and they evidently decided he did. The jurors in Glynn County, Georgia, did not have to make such a judgment. They merely had to agree that the attempted “arrest” was in fact unlawful in the first place.
The prosecutors declined to pursue whether racism motivated the killers, perhaps because 11 of 12 jurors were white. Yet the question of race permeated the trial. As Mr Arbery’s mother reminded reporters on the steps of the courthouse on November 18th, it took 74 days, and the release of the shocking video, for the killers even to be charged. In the end, it was not the local police but the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a state-wide agency, that arrested the three suspects. The prosecutors had to be brought in from Cobb County, just outside Atlanta; local prosecutors recused themselves because of links to the elder Mr McMichael.
That hardly suggests an environment conducive to justice for black men. Another trial of the defendants, in a federal court, on hate crimes and attempted kidnapping, is due in February. But these convictions will come as a relief to many; an acquittal would in effect have endorsed vigilante justice, even when it leads to the death of an innocent man.