On May 6, a video chronicling the tragic shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed by two white men while jogging, provoked nationwide outrage. Despite that the shooting occured on Feb. 23, Gregory and Travis McMichael, the two men who pursued and shot Arbery, were not arrested until May 7, largely because of the botched and unethical approach to their prosecution.
After the video went viral on social media on May 5, investigative reporting done by NBC News shed light on prosecutors’ mishandling of the investigation of Arbery’s death. Official after official exhibited clear bias and dismissed accountability. Yet despite the public’s outcry, justice has yet to prevail. The mishandling of Arbery’s case is yet another stark reminder of the conspicuous inequities within our justice system. We must root out the corruption from the prosecution to ensure Arbery’s killers are held accountable.
Throughout the ongoing investigation, the prosecution’s actions have been blatantly unethical. The first prosecutor, Brunswick district attorney Jackie L. Johnson, recused herself from the case since one suspect, Gregory McMichael, worked as an investigator at her office. Her involvement in the case was a clear conflict of interest and delayed the initial investigation. The second prosecutor, Waycross district attorney George E. Barnhill, claimed that the McMichaels had acted under Georgia’s citizen arrest laws and, therefore, had committed no wrongdoing. However, Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law only allows private persons to arrest an individual whom they’ve witnessed committing a crime or who has done so within their immediate knowledge. Arbery was on a midday jog. The law clearly does not apply to the McMichaels’ crime, and Barnhill’s conflict of interest indicates his clear bias that led to the McMichaels’ circumvention of the law.
Three men hunted down, shot and killed Arbery after spotting him on a run in their neighborhood. While they told the police they believed Arbery matched the appearance of a previous burglary suspect, this does not grant them leeway for murder, especially since they did not witness Arbery committing a crime. This was not an implementation of the citizen’s arrest law — it was murder and must be treated as such.
Barnhill later recused himself due to conflict of interest as his son had previously worked with Gregory McMichael, thereby revealing his clear bias in his involvement in the case.
A new prosecutor, Joyette Holmes, was named to handle the case on May 11, and the U.S. Department of Justice is still considering whether Arbery’s case warrants federal hate crime charges. Amid the heat of national attention, we must nevertheless pressure our elected officials to ensure that Arbery’s killers are held accountable for this atrocity and that such crimes do not occur again. We cannot ignore the depths to which this case has been bungled, and we must take action to guarantee the prosecution proceeds ethically.
Arbery’s supporters have rallied on social media to spread awareness of the injustice of the investigation. Hashtag #IRunWithMaud trended on Twitter and other social media platforms over this past week, as people posted their 2.23-mile runs in honor of Arbery. While the pandemic prevents in-person protests, we must still show our support through other safe measures.
We must demand that Holmes take action and hold the killers accountable for Arbery’s slaying. Emory students, fight for justice in the case by doing exactly that. Call your representatives, turn to social media and rally behind Arbery in a show of solidarity. Such utter failure to destroy racism and injustice must not go unnoticed. This is our state, our officials and our people, and we cannot afford to stand idly by while explicit corruption continues to take root in our justice system.
Brammhi Balarajan (23C) is from Las Vegas.