They were found guilty of murder. Now the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery face hate crime charges.
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In November, Ahmaud Arbery’s family saw a glimpse of justice. Three men – Travis and Gregory McMichael, a father and son, and William Bryan – have all been convicted of the murder of the 25-year-old in February 2020.
But their quest is not over. The McMichaels and Bryan will face a hate crime trial in federal court on Feb. 7, when jury selection begins. The Ministry of Justice filed the charges Last February, saying the McMichaels, who are white, targeted Arbery, a black man, “because of his race and color.”
They risk being sentenced to life imprisonment. The McMichaels were previously sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the murder, while Bryan was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
“This case is a litmus test of where our justice system stands,” Lee Merritt, the Arbery family’s attorney, told HuffPost. “We will have the chance to see the gruesome facts and images with which the nation has become intimately familiar, reconciled with the hatred and ideology that motivated these actions.”
The trial will be a stark difference from the state trial, where prosecutors alluded to a racial motive but never presented evidence to that effect — although some was available, including the alleged use of racial slurs during the murder. While Glynn County prosecutors are sticking strictly to the mechanical facts of whether the three men wrongfully killed, federal prosecutors will be looking for a deeper judgment: a judgment that says bias-motivated crimes should be considered a crime against the whole country.
Arbery’s death — and the long delay that followed before charges were filed — sparked a wide conversation about how cheap black life can be in America. “There is something so simple and tragic about a young man not even being able to run and jog in public in America,” said hate crimes expert and lawyer Brian Levin. “It’s not just the tragedy and loss of Arbery, it was the start of a lynching mob.”
A different legal standard
In Glynn County, the prosecution focused heavily on the legal standard of murder and Travis McMichael’s claim that he was merely carrying out a citizen’s arrest.
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski occasionally made arguments containing a slight — but never explicit — nod to racial animosity on the part of the McMichaels and Bryan.
“We are here because of assumptions and aisle decisions. These three defendants did everything they did based on assumptions. Neither on facts nor on evidence. On assumptions,” she said during opening statements.
But the prosecution never presented evidence, for example, that Bryan told law enforcement officials that Travis McMichael yelled a racial slur at Arbery after shooting him, pronouncing “fucking nigger” after the shooting over Arbery’s body. Defense attorneys asked prosecutors not to ask about it in court because Bryan was the only witness to the alleged incident.
The judge presiding over the case heard arguments from the lawyers on Friday about racist text messages and whether they should be admitted into evidence. The content of the messages is unclear, but Bryan’s attorney concedes they are “highly inflammatory”. He argued that disclosing the texts in court would unfairly influence black jurors.
In May 2020, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr called for a federal investigation of the United States Department of Justice in Arbery’s death.
In the federal indictment, the McMichaels and Bryan are all charged with attempting to “forcibly restrain and detain Arbery against his will,” which resulted in the young black man’s death. The three, also charged with kidnapping, allegedly restricted Arbery to his “free movement” and “surrounded and detained him against his will, and prevented his escape.”
The hate crime charges focus on the three men’s motives when they were pursuing Arbery in broad daylight.
The day Arbery was murdered was not the first time he was sued, Merritt said. It was a recurring “hunt” that resulted in the death of a young black man. This was evident during the murder trial, as the McMichaels made 911 calls about a black man going in and out of a construction site months before Arbery’s murder.
The Georgian legal system will also come under scrutiny. Merritt said the federal trial jury will hear “revealing things” about how Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill “felt about black people.” Barnhill recused himself from Arbery’s case, but not before him wrote a letter to Glynn County Police arguing that the three men should not be arrested. He argued that the McMichaels were legally following a burglary suspect “with solid probable cause at first hand”.
Barnhill was the second prosecutor to touch the Arbery murder case after former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson backed out of the case because she knew Gregory McMichael.
“We have already had the criminality of their actions tried in court. The federal charges are directed at the terrorism aspect of their actions and the implications they had for black people in this country,” Merritt said.
“What is being judged now is not their behavior, but their reasoning for the behavior. This is a question that has not yet been addressed, it is a question of first impressions.
Changing Hate Crime Laws
Prior to Arbery’s murder, Georgia was one of four states without hate crime laws on the books. But that ended up changing.
Georgia has adopted a hate crimes law in June 2020, months after Arbery’s death, and later repealed its Citizens’ Arrest Act. The legislation imposes penalties for crimes motivated by a person’s race, religion, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability – but the McMichaels and Bryan could not be charged under it because the law was not in force. place at the time of Arbery’s murder.
Forty-seven states now have hate crime laws on the books. But the motivations for bias in hate crime laws vary statewide. South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas are the only remaining states without hate crime laws.
There are five federal hate crimes laws federal prosecutors use to determine whether someone should be charged with a hate crime.
“There’s a bigger picture here, which is the history of this country with black people being killed for racial reasons.”
– Heidi Beirich, Director of Strategy, Global Project Against Hatred and Extremism
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which was introduced during the administration of former President Barack Obama, makes it a crime for a person to be harmed or assaulted with a dangerous weapon because of his race, his color, his religion. , national origin, gender, sexual orientation and other protected categories.
The case of James Byrd Jr. dates back to 1998. Like Arbery, Byrd had been murdered by three white men.
Byrd accepted a ride from Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer and John King, all of whom were white supremacists, in Jasper, Texas. Instead of taking Byrd home during the drive, they severely beat him and chained him by the ankles, dragging him with a van.
After Byrd’s lynching, Texas enacted its own hate crimes law.
Experts consider Byrd’s murder and the enactment of the law a pivotal moment in American history and also something long overdue.
“I think it’s remarkable under the Shepard Byrd Act, which were two other cases that captured the soul of good America at a time when we’re seeing an increase in racial violence,” Levin said. .
Arbery’s family rejected a plea deal in federal hate crime charges on January 7, even after the men were convicted of murder in County Glynn.
His mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told the media that the three men must be tried again for their brutal actions.
A climate of hatred
Hate crimes against black people jumped nearly 40% from 2019 to 2020. And 2020, the year Arbery was murdered, saw the most hate crimes in the country since 2001, according to the Leaders’ Conference on civil and human rights.
The year Arbery was killed, protests across the country followed the police killing of George Floyd as well as the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
During this period, 61% of hate crimes showed people were targeted because of their race, ethnicity or ancestry, according to the statistics published by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. White people accounted for 55% of perpetrators who committed acts of hate.
From 2010 to 2019, hate crime figures recorded by law enforcement increased by 10%. From 2015 to 2019, nearly half of hate crimes were motivated by anti-Black or anti-African American bias.
The Justice Department said Attorney General Merrick Garland has made tackling hate crimes a “top priority” and said it’s rooted in the department’s “core history” of tackling hate crimes. racial violence and civil rights protections, according to department spokesperson Areyele Bradford.
“Hate crimes not only impact the specifically targeted victims, they also instill fear in entire communities, whether or not they garner broader national attention,” Bradford said. “Therefore, the prosecution of hate crimes asserts the rights not only of specifically targeted victims, but also of broader communities.”
Hate crimes experts who have studied racist and neighboring groups on the American right for decades believe the trial will be critical.
“There is a bigger picture here, which is the history of this country with black people being killed for racial reasons. This is why the accusation of a hate crime is so important, because it is also a judgment of society. A black man targeted because he is a black man,” Heidi Beirich, director of strategy for the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told HuffPost. “Just convicting these people of murder is not enough given the nature of this crime.”
They were found guilty of murder. Now the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery face hate crime charges.
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