Now that Gregory and Travis McMichaels have been charged with murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, it’s likely the pair will attempt to mount a legal argument focusing on self-defense. There’s just one problem for the father and son: there’s no way that the totality of their actions supports a claim of self-defense.
Keep in mind, according to Gregory McMichaels himself, after he say Arbery run past his home on the afternoon of Sunday, February 23rd, he ran into his home and told his son Travis “the guy is running down the street, let’s go.” Then he ran to his bedroom and retrieved a handgun, while Travis McMichael grabbed a shotgun and headed to his truck. Gregory McMichaels said he and his son grabbed their guns because they were concerned that “they didn’t know” if Arbery was armed.
The plan, according to Gregory McMichaels, was to stop Arbery and perform a citizens arrest for several burglaries that McMichaels says had recently taken place in the neighborhood. This raises two issues. The first is that, according to police reports, there was only one burglary reported between January 1st and February 23rd in the neighborhood. One of them was reported by none other than Travis McMichael, who said his father’s gun had been stolen from his unlocked truck back on January 1st.
Gregory McMichael told Glynn County police that Arbery was suspected in “several break-ins,” but no such string of crimes was reported in the weeks before the shooting. Police have yet to clarify whether Arbery is accused of any crime at a home that was being built.
The owner of an under-construction home, who is listed as a victim in the police incident report, said his surveillance system captured at least four short clips of a man who appeared to be Arbery “coming onto his property” February 23. He declined to share them with CNN and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he says he’s been receiving death threats.
The man walked by the garage and down to a dock on the Little Satilla River, the motion-triggered cameras show, according to the homeowner. Asked whether they showed the man stealing or committing any other crime, he said they show him “trespassing.”
Whether the McMichaels believed Arbery was running around the neighborhood at night breaking into homes or simply wandering around an unfinished home, neither would be cause for making a citizen’s arrest on a Sunday afternoon when the only thing Gregory McMichaels had witnessed Arbery doing was jogging. The Georgia statutes on when a citizen’s arrest can be made are pretty clear.
According to Georgia law, citizen’s arrests are legal, but only if an offense is committed in their presence, and the arrest may be made if the suspect is attempting to escape.
But [James] Yancey, practicing law in the Brunswick area since 1990, says there’s no grounds for that argument, or claiming self-defense in the Arbery case.
“Even assuming they saw some offense, they are not authorized to chase a person down and basically murder them,” Yancey said. “If somebody chases you with a gun, who wouldn’t try to defend themselves? He was fighting for his life. To say they were acting in self-defense, that’s laughable.”
The McMichaels witnessed no crime on February 23rd, and had no reason or right to try to stop Ahmaud Arbery. They armed themselves, they pursued Arbery through the neighborhood, they (with the help of a third individual) boxed Arbery in on a suburban street, and then when he tried to run around Travis McMichaels’ truck, he was confronted by McMichaels who was holding a shotgun.
After asking Arbery several times to stop, Travis McMichael stepped out of the truck with a shotgun, Gregory McMichael told police.
Gregory McMichael told police a struggle for the gun ensued between Travis McMichael and Arbery, during which his son fired twice. Arbery died at the scene.
If you’re jogging down the street and all of a sudden you’re being chased by guys in cars who try to box you in and prevent you from leaving, are you going to stop and talk to them when they’re yelling at you? Most people would try to get away from the area, and from the video that’s been released, it looks like that’s what Arbery tried to do. As he passed the front of McMichaels’ truck, however, Travis McMichaels steps up, shotgun in hand.
Again, what would most people do in that situation? At that point, you might think running away would only present a target. Your fighting instinct might kick in, and you might try to take the shotgun away from the guy who’s been chasing you. Ahmaud Arbery had far more reason to believe that his life was in danger than Travis or Gregory McMichaels did, and a far stronger case can be made that it was Arbery who acted in self-defense by trying to disarm Travis McMichaels.
Attorneys for Gregory McMichaels will likely argue (if the case goes to trial) that he believed his son’s life was in danger, which is why he fired the shots that ended Ahmaud Arbery’s life. If that’s the case, it’s only because Gregory McMichaels helped to put his son’s life in danger by telling him to help pursue Arbery in the first place.
However, you can’t act in self-defense if you’re already committing a felony, and the McMichaels have also been charged with felony aggravated assault for their actions in the minutes leading up to Arbery’s shooting. If prosecutors prove that the McMichaels were acting unlawfully when they accosted Arbery, there’s simply no way that Gregory McMichaels could have shot Ahmaud Arbery in self-defense or defense of another. The pair were the initial aggressors from the time they got in that truck and began chasing Arbery down the street. There are millions of defensive gun uses in this country every year. This wasn’t one of them.
While much of the media coverage of Arbery’s death has focused on the actual suspects, there needs to be an investigation into the the actions of the Glynn County District Attorney as well. Two members of the county board of commissioners have come forward to say that police were ready to make arrests on the afternoon of February 23rd, but were blocked by Glynn County D.A. Jackie Johnson.
“The police at the scene went to her, saying they were ready to arrest both of them. These were the police at the scene who had done the investigation,” Commissioner Allen Booker, who has spoken with Glynn County police, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “She shut them down to protect her friend McMichael.”
Greg McMichael, now retired, once worked as an investigator in Johnson’s office.
Commissioner Peter Murphy, who also said he spoke directly to Glynn County police about the incident, said officers at the scene concluded they had probable cause to make arrests and contacted Johnson’s office to inform the prosecutor of their decision.
“They were told not to make the arrest,” Murphy said.
Johnson recused herself from the case within days of the shooting. Her office has not responded to a request to comment on the commissioners’ account of what happened, or on the case in general.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was able to find probable cause for an arrest after less than 48 hours of investigating. It sounds like Glynn County police didn’t even need that much time, but if they were prevented from making an arrest by Johnson, it didn’t matter. Johnson may have recused herself from the case, but it sounds not before she made a very big decision.