Law enforcement ties, long delay complicate Arbery case
ATLANTA — There was an abundance of evidence when officers arrived at the scene on a February afternoon in coastal Georgia: A man, apparently unarmed, lying on the street, soaked in blood. The suspected shooter, a shotgun, eyewitnesses. And video of the incident.
But no arrests were made in the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery for more than two months, not until after video of the shooting in Brunswick surfaced and stoked a national uproar over race relations.
Now local prosecutors are being investigated for their handling of the case. And a newly appointed investigative agency and prosecutor must untangle the criminal probe, build a case and make up for lost time and missed opportunities.
Among the questions they must answer: Did shooting suspect Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory, both white, get special treatment because the elder McMichael used to work for the Brunswick Circuit District Attorney’s office? Did investigators treat the shooting as a potential murder, or as a justifiable homicide? And might the outcome have been different if Arbery weren’t black?
The 911 operator sounded confused by the caller’s description of a purported crime: A man was in a house under construction.
“You said someone’s breaking into it right now?”
“No, it’s all open. It’s under construction,” the caller says, “And he’s running right now. There he goes right now.”
The dispatcher says she’ll send police, but “I just need to know what he was doing wrong.”
A second call comes in six minutes later: “I’m out here in Satilla Shores. There’s a black male running down the street.”
The operator is trying to get more details when a man yells, “Stop. ... Damnit. Stop.” Then, after a pause, “Travis!”
According to the police report, Gregory McMichael said he saw a person he suspected of burglary “hauling ass” down the street. He and son Travis grabbed their guns, hopped into a pickup truck and chased him down.
He told police they wanted to talk to Arbery and tried to corner him, but Arbery began to “violently attack” Travis McMichael, the report says. The two fought over the shotgun, and Arbery was shot. The McMichaels claimed self-defense.
Police called the district attorney’s office, where Gregory McMichael had worked for more than two decades, for advice, and they were released.
Arbery’s mother got a call from an investigator.
“He went on to say that Ahmaud was involved in a burglary, and in the midst of the burglary he was confronted by the homeowner, and in the midst of that confrontation, there was a fight over the firearm and Ahmaud was shot and killed,” Wanda Cooper-Jones told The Associated Press.
Law enforcement in Brunswick has a checkered history, and over the past decade police have faced numerous lawsuits and increasing scrutiny. Just days after Arbery’s killing, Glynn County Police Chief John Powell and three former high-ranking officers were indicted in what investigators described as a cover-up of an officer’s sexual relationship with an informant.
Officers calling the DA for guidance is not unusual. But there’s disagreement over what happened next.
Peter Murphy, an elected commissioner in Glynn County, alleged that the DA's office told police arrests weren't necessary.
The district attorney’s office calls that a “malicious lie” and says it was police who raised the justified shooting angle.
Police say they were told the day of the shooting that more follow-up was needed but the McMichaels weren’t flight risks and could go home. A second prosecutor brought in after the first recused herself quickly decided no charges were necessary. He was eventually removed over his own conflict of interest.
J. Tom Morgan, a former metro Atlanta district attorney, said it would be a “big misstep” for the DA to advise police against arrests if officers decided a crime likely occurred.
“I can’t imagine saying ‘stand down.' ... If police believe they have probable cause, I’m not going to second-guess them,” Morgan said.
In any homicide, it’s important to interview witnesses immediately. If that was delayed because officers were told not to make arrests, it could make it harder for prosecutors to bring a successful murder case and easier for defense lawyers to argue the crime scene was tainted.
Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson said it appears investigators started with an assumption of justified shooting.
“Because of all of the assumptions that are made, all of the steps in the investigation that are not taken, they made the job much more difficult for the AG’s office,” Stinson said.
The shaky video emerged May 5 showing Arbery running from the McMichaels. Travis McMichael and Arbery appear to struggle over the gun. Gregory McMichael hops from the back of the truck. Arbery is shot and falls to the ground. It doesn’t show Arbery with a firearm.
Amid widespread outrage and calls for justice, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over. Both McMichaels were arrested on charges of aggravated assault and murder May 7. GBI director Vic Reynolds said there was clear probable cause.
The legal case now stretches beyond coastal Georgia, with the FBI weighing potential federal hate crime charges.
A third prosecutor was removed after the state attorney general said the case had grown in “size and scope.” Now Cobb County's Joyette M. Holmes, one of seven black DAs in Georgia, is overseeing things.
The first DA, Jackie Johnson, defends her involvement. So does the second DA.
“I’m confident an investigation is going to show my office did what it was supposed to and there was no wrongdoing on our part,” Johnson told AP, denying her office discouraged arrests or suggested the shooting may have been justified.
The McMichaels have pleaded not guilty, and their attorneys caution against a rush to judgment.