SAVANNAH, GA — The parents of a black man slain in a pursuit by two white men armed with guns called for immediate arrests Wednesday as they faced the prospect of waiting a month or longer before a Georgia grand jury could consider bringing charges.
A swelling outcry over the Feb. 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery intensified after a cellphone video that lawyers for his family say shows the killing surfaced online Tuesday. Following the video’s release, a large crowd of demonstrators marched in the neighbourhood where Arbery was killed, and the state opened its own investigation, which the governor and attorney general pledged to support. The men who pursued Arbery told police they suspected he had committed a recent burglary.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, told reporters Wednesday she believes her 25-year-old son “was just out for his daily jog” in a neighbourhood outside the port city of Brunswick. She hasn’t watched the video.
“I saw my son come into the world,” Jones said. “And seeing him leave the world, it’s not something that I’ll want to see ever.”
No arrests have been made or charges filed in coastal Glynn County more than two months after the killing. An outside prosecutor placed in charge of the case said he wants a grand jury to decide whether criminal charges are warranted. That won’t happen until at least mid-June, since Georgia courts remain largely closed because of the coronavirus.
Attorneys for Arbery’s family said the father and son, who have acknowledged in a police report grabbing guns and pursuing Arbery in a truck after seeing him running in their neighbourhood, should be arrested now before a grand jury decides whether to indict them — as often happens in criminal cases.
“These men were vigilantes, they were a posse and they performed a modern lynching in the middle of the day,” said Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother.
According to an incident report filed by Glynn County police, Arbery was shot after two men spotted him running in their neighbourhood on a Sunday afternoon. Gregory McMichael told police that he and his adult son thought the runner matched the description of someone caught on a security camera committing a recent break-in in the neighbourhood. They armed themselves with guns before getting in a truck to pursue him.
The father said his son, Travis McMichael, got out of the truck holding a shotgun, and Arbery “began to violently attack.” He said Arbery was shot as the two men fought over the shotgun, according to the police report.
After Arbery was shot, the police report says, Gregory McMichael turned him onto his back to see if he was armed. The report doesn’t say whether he had a weapon.
A phone number listed for Gregory McMichael has been disconnected. The Associated Press could not immediately find a phone listing for Travis McMichael.
The cellphone video, initially posted by a Brunswick radio station, shows a black man running at a jogging pace on the left side of a road. A truck is parked in the road ahead of him. One man is inside the pickup’s bed, and another is standing beside the open driver’s side door.
The runner crosses the road to pass the pickup on the passenger side, then crosses back in front of the truck. A gunshot sounds, and the video shows the runner grappling with a man in the street over what appears to be a shotgun or rifle. A second shot can be heard, and the runner can be seen punching the man. A third shot is fired at point-blank range. The runner staggers a few feet and falls face down.
Tom Durden, the district attorney appointed to oversee the case, declined to comment Tuesday when asked if the video depicts Arbery’s shooting. A phone message was left for him Wednesday.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is now investigating the shooting after Durden requested the agency’s help, GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said.
Georgia law says a person can kill in self-defence “only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury … or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” The law also says a person who provokes an attack or acts as “the aggressor” can’t claim self-defence.
Merritt, the attorney for Arbery’s family, has said the U.S. Justice Department should also investigate the death as a hate crime.
“The FBI has said it’s assisting,” said Justice Department spokesman Mike Lloyd, “and as is standard protocol we look forward to working with them should information come to light of a potential federal violation.”
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp late Tuesday threw his support behind that probe. He posted on Twitter: “Georgians deserve answers. State law enforcement stands ready to ensure justice is served.”
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, also a Republican, spoke out as well.
“Based on the video footage and news reports that I have seen, I am deeply concerned with the events surrounding the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery,” Carr said in a statement. “I expect justice to be carried out as swiftly as possible.”
Former Vice-President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, also weighed in. “The video is clear: Ahmaud Arbery was killed in cold blood,” Biden wrote on Twitter, referring to the death as a “murder.”
Jackie Johnson, the district attorney for Glynn County, recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael worked as an investigator in her office. He retired a year ago. George Barnhill, the first outside prosecutor on the case, stepped aside in mid-April at the urging of Arbery’s family. Barnhill has a son who works as an assistant prosecutor for Johnson.
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this story.