The killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

The jury is now deliberating.
Isaac Saul Nov 23, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 14 minutes.

We're explaining the trial of the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery. Like we did with the Rittenhouse and Chauvin trials, we'll be using the entirety of today's newsletter to explain what took place, what has happened during trial and what each side is saying about the case.

Screenshot: CNN
Travis McMichael, who shot Arbery, testifying during trial. Screenshot: CNN

Correction.

Yesterday, I referenced Joe Biden's "$1.75B" social spending and climate change plan that just passed the House. That should have been $1.75T, for trillion, which is the actual cost of the bill. Nothing fancy here, just a silly error that shouldn't have happened.

This is the 46th Tangle corrections in its 120-week history, and the first correction since November 15. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


Quick hits.

  1. The U.S. announced a plan to release 50 million barrels of oil from its strategic reserve as part of a global plan to to help reduce the cost of energy and gas. (The plan)
  2. The Department of Justice settled with the survivors and families of the Parkland school shooting for $130 million over charges it failed to properly respond to tips about the shooter. (The settlement)
  3. The suspect in the Waukesha Christmas parade crash is being charged with five counts of intentional homicide. He was fleeing a domestic dispute. (The charges)
  4. Roger Stone and Alex Jones have been subpoenaed by the Congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol. (The subpoena)
  5. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was freed after three years in prison. (The latest)

Today's topic.

Ahmaud Arbery. On Monday, closing arguments began in the trial of his killers, and on Tuesday the jury began deliberations. Arbery's case is the third in a series of politically and racially charged murder/homicide cases that rocked the nation last year to go to trial — the murder of George Floyd, the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting, and now the Arbery trial.

The people involved: Arbery was a former high school football player who had dropped out of college and spent his early 20s trying to pursue different careers. He was living with his mother and was known by friends for staying in great shape.

Gregory McMichael, 65, is a former Glynn County police officer who has worked as an investigator for the local district attorney’s office. Travis McMichael, 35, was a machinery technician for the U.S. Coast Guard, where he spent nine years. William "Roddie" Bryan, 52, was the man who filmed the encounter from a trailing car, though he is accused of attempting to detain Arbery and participating in his murder as well.

All three men are being charged with felony murder and malice murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Each murder charge could result in a life sentence. Aggravated assault carries a maximum sentence of 20 years and false imprisonment is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. If the defendants are convicted on multiple counts, they will be sentenced on the most serious charge.

The initial story: Arbery was running in Satilla Shores when Gregory McMichael saw him go by from his front porch. He thought Arbery looked like a man suspected in several break-ins in the neighborhood so he yelled for his son, who grabbed a .357 Magnum handgun and a shotgun, and the two got into their pick up truck and gave chase. William Bryan, their neighbor, saw them going after Arbery, then got into his car and began to follow them.

The McMichaels repeatedly yelled for Arbery to stop, according to their claims in the police report. Then they pulled their car up past Arbery, and Travis McMichael got out of the truck to try to stop him. Gregory McMichael told police that the then-unidentified man, Ahmaud Arbery, violently attacked his son in an attempt to grab his shotgun, at which point Travis shot Arbery.

Later, a 911 dispatch call from moments before the McMichaels gave chase was released. In it, a neighbor who saw Arbery inside a house that was under construction had reported him to police.

Shortly after the shooting, a series of prosecutors and district attorneys recused themselves from the case because of their prior relationships with Gregory McMichael, a former cop. First was prosecutor Jackie Johnson, whom McMichael called for advice immediately after the shooting. Then George E. Barnhill, the district attorney in Waycross, GA, stepped down, although he argued in a letter that the three men should not be arrested and were within their rights under Georgia's open carry laws and its citizen arrest law, which says “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” Barnhill argued they thought Arbery was committing a burglary.

The videos: Two months later, after no arrests had taken place, a video surfaced of the incident which was taken by William Bryan, the neighbor following the men in his car. The half-minute long cellphone footage shows Arbery jogging down the street with the McMichaels in a parked pickup truck in front of him. Gregory McMichael is standing in the bed of the truck with a handgun, and Travis McMichael is standing outside the driver's side door with a shotgun. Arbery jogs around the truck as the cell phone drops below the dashboard, then re-emerges in front of the truck amid shouting in a struggle with Travis McMichael, where the men are wrestling over the shotgun. Three gun blasts can be heard, then Arbery tries to run away before staggering and falling to the ground.

The video immediately went viral, causing a national media storm and prompting the arrests of all three men. Not long after, another video emerged: a surveillance video showing Arbery inside the home that was under construction. In the video, Arbery looks around briefly and then leaves the house, jogging away. He is not seen stealing anything or committing any damage inside the home.

The aftermath: The prosecutor for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, Jackie Johnson, who initially recused herself, has been charged for not immediately arresting Travis McMichael. She was voted out of her job and now faces charges of violating her oath for showing "favor and affection" to Gregory McMichael, as well as obstruction charges for telling two police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael on the day of the shooting.

Georgia has also reformed its citizen's arrest law, which the McMichaels are citing in court to defend their actions. Arbery's family, friends and lawyer have maintained that he was out getting exercise in the neighborhood and was likely just going for a jog when he stopped and briefly explored the under-construction home. No evidence has emerged of Arbery committing any robberies. Arbery's supporters have compared the day's actions to a modern lynching, because he was chased down, cornered, and then killed by white men.

The trial: During the trial, the McMichaels have argued that the neighborhood had been on edge from a series of robberies that had taken place, including theft of equipment stolen from a house under construction. On one night, Travis McMichael said he approached a man "creeping through the shadows" of the neighborhood, but retreated when the man reached into his pocket, making him believe the man was armed. Nobody ever saw or spoke to that man again, but the McMichaels argued it contributed to their state of mind.

On the day of the chase, Travis McMichael says his father came into the house and told him "the guy that has been breaking in down the road just ran by the house, something's happened," and the two men grabbed their firearms and went after him. The McMichaels argue that they simply tried to stop Arbery so he could be questioned by police, and their lawyer says Arbery was seen on surveillance footage multiple times in the same house. Travis McMichael testified that they made at least two attempts to talk to Arbery, who did not speak to him, and took off running when Travis mentioned the police were coming.

There is "no evidence that Ahmaud Arbery ever jogged or exercised in Satilla Shores," the McMichaels' lawyer argued. Arbery didn't try to defuse the situation by talking to the men or running away from them through a yard during the five-minute chase, the McMichaels’ lawyer said. He also argued that the former police officer was just looking out for his neighborhood, certain that Arbery was the same man on previously seen surveillance footage. "A good neighborhood is always policing itself," his lawyer argued. "The police can’t be everywhere, and in a safe, secure neighborhood, police are helped by those neighbors." Once Arbery tried to wrestle away Travis's gun, the defense says it became an act of self-defense.

The prosecutor, meanwhile, argued that the men made rash decisions under the assumption that Arbery had committed a crime (which they had no proof of) and then killed him because he refused to stop and talk to them. While Arbery was seen walking around the house on surveillance footage, he was never seen taking or damaging anything. The three men had "no immediate knowledge" of a crime, which is a prerequisite for a citizen's arrest, they only assumed he was a criminal because he was running down the street.

The prosecutor argued the men can't claim self-defense because they initiated the interaction, were unjustified aggressors, and chased Arbery with weapons. "Who brought the shotgun to the party?" she asked. While citizen's arrest laws allow people to stop a crime from happening, the prosecutors argued they had no indication of any such crime in this case, and still don't. Once they chased Arbery and trapped him with their guns out, it was actually Arbery who felt his life was in danger and acted in self-defense.

Meanwhile, action outside the courtroom has been the topic of conversation, too. Black Lives Matter protesters and armed members of the Black Panthers have been outside the courtroom, Some protesters brought a casket that has the defendants’ names on it. Kevin Bough, the defense attorney for Bryan, who filmed the encounter, requested a mistrial. The motion was denied. Bough has also unsuccessfully tried to seperate Bryan from the McMichaels, saying he did not realize the men were armed when he joined them in the chase. Body camera footage from the police responding after the incident showed Bryan saying he was more than just a witness, at one point telling police he "blocked" Arbery during the chase.

Anything else? Yup. A big portion of this case hinges on the citizen's arrest law in Georgia. The law "allowed a private person to arrest someone if that person witnessed — or was told about — a crime, or if someone suspected of committing a felony was trying to escape," according to The New York Times. Civil rights advocates have long criticized these laws, arguing they were used to justify hundreds of arrests and lynchings of Black people in Georgia between 1882 and 1968. Immediately after the shooting, Bryan told police that Travis McMichael used a racial slur to describe Arbery after killing him. The truck the McMichaels were in also had a Confederate flag vanity plate.

During trial, a detective read a transcript of a conversation with the elder McMichael immediately after the shooting, in which McMichael says "I don't think the guy has actually stolen anything out of there or if he did, it was early in this process." He also did not claim he was attempting a citizen's arrest and did not cite any specific crime Arbery could be arrested for, according to the prosecution.

Below, we'll take a look at some arguments from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The killing was provoked by the defendants, who pursued and trapped Arbery, and who still have no evidence he committed any crimes.
  • It's another instance of onlookers assuming a young Black man is a criminal, and the defendants have told inconsistent stories about what they knew.
  • The nearly all-white jury is an obvious injustice.

In The New York Times, Charles Blow cited a list of cases with similar stories involving "brazen" white men recently.

"Race hangs heavy over all these cases," he wrote. "They involve white vigilantes who stalked and killed a Black man, and a young man who killed two people at a protest that was in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. They involve white men who sought to overturn a fair election in which people of color secured a victory for Biden over a white nationalist president, and a white man who defied Congress to protect those white nationalists. And finally, they involve a man who posted a violent video about killing a woman of color in Congress.

"We already know the outcome of two cases,"  Blow wrote. "I don’t know how the others will end. But in any case, the damage was already done by the original offending action. They were all grand demonstrations of brazenness, by men behaving as if they were above the law, as if the law didn’t truly apply to them. Some are being held accountable, but it is only because they were born in a country that gives white men passes others don’t get, that they were able to scoff at the rules without thinking that they would face any repercussions."

Paul Butler said the nearly all-white jury is a huge injustice.

"Now, a jury has been selected: 11 White people and one African American, plus four White alternates," Butler wrote. "Travis McMichael’s lawyer pronounced himself 'very pleased,' adding that members of the defense team 'truly believe' the jury will decide the case 'in keeping with what we all understand justice to be about.' There is only one Black juror because the defense removed 11 of the 12 Black prospective jurors, and Judge Timothy Walmsley let them get away with it.

"During jury selection in a criminal trial, after the judge has found that potential jurors are qualified to sit on the case, the prosecution and defense each get a number of peremptory strikes that they can use to remove jurors for virtually any reason — except race and gender," Butler said. "After the defense team struck all but one of the Black potential jurors, prosecutors demanded the judge intervene... [Judge] Walmsley said Wednesday that there appeared to be 'intentional discrimination' by the defense lawyers but that their reasons for removing the prospective jurors who were Black were 'race-neutral.' If you have a hard time understanding how both those findings could be true, don’t worry. It doesn’t make sense."

In Vox, Fabiola Cineas said it's a reminder of why we need to abolish citizens' arrest.

"Every state has some version of a citizen’s arrest law, though they vary based on the type of crime and whether the citizen must witness the crime directly or just be aware that it happened," Cineas said. "In many states, the laws are unclear about how long a citizen is permitted to detain someone, how much probable cause is necessary, and how much force can be used... In Alabama, for example, a private person can make a citizen’s arrest 'where a felony has been committed' — even if they didn’t witness it — and when they have 'reasonable cause to believe that the person arrested committed it.' The law specifies that the arrest can be made 'on any day and at any time,' outlines the steps that must be taken for a legal arrest, and gives citizens permission to break open doors or windows to capture the alleged offender."


What the right is saying.

  • Arbery was a victim, but there are legitimate questions about the role race played in the shooting.
  • The media has over-emphasized race and is not exploring some holes in Arbery's story.
  • This case is nothing like Rittenhouse's trial, despite many on the left comparing the two.

In The National Review, Andrew McCarthy said the men made a "legal assumption," and criticized how the media has portrayed their actions as driven by race.

"Even if the men knew that Arbery matched the description of a man depicted in the surveillance videos, and even if they believed he was acting suspiciously, they had not seen him commit a crime, and they had no real evidence that he had done so," he said. "There was no legal basis to detain him, much less make a citizen’s arrest under state law. There was no basis to use force against Arbery, much less lethal force... The three defendants’ conduct amounted to murder and other crimes because their suspicions and perceptions did not amount to legal cause.

"Yet state prosecutors have not proven, or even charged, that the three white men killed Arbery because he was black," McCarthy wrote. "As summations in the Georgia trial commence this week, you are to be forgiven if — as with the just-completed Wisconsin trial at which Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted — you have a distorted understanding of what the case is about thanks to press coverage. It is always reported that the accused are white and Arbery was black. We are also told that the McMichaels and Bryan are charged with what is called malice murder. This state-law term is rarely explained, so it would be understandable for you to suppose that malice must refer to racial prejudice. 'Malice murder,' however, has nothing to do with race, or indeed with bias of any kind. Under Georgia law, it is simply the unlawful causing of another person’s death 'with malice aforethought.'"

Madeline Kearns argued that the case has been compared to Rittenhouse's, but it's nothing like it.

"A recent New York Times story compares the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse with that of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, asserting that they are 'strikingly similar stories: men took up guns in the name of protecting the public and when they wound up killing unarmed people, they claimed self-defense.' This comparison is superficial and misleading," Kearns said. "True, the defendants in both trials are claiming self-defense. And one could also argue that the defendants share a penchant for vigilantism, albeit of a different kind. Nevertheless, the details playing out before the trials’ respective juries reveal many more differences than similarities.

"Perhaps the most crucial distinction is that Rittenhouse — a lone 17-year-old — fatally shot men who were chasing and assaulting him," Kearns wrote. "Whereas Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael fatally shot a man whom they were chasing, a man to whom they gave no means of escape, trapping him between vehicles, with the assistance of their accomplice William Bryan. Arbery’s killers were already pointing guns at him at the critical moment when Arbery lunged at Travis McMichael. If anyone had a claim to self-defense in such an instance, it was surely Arbery."

In American Greatness, Christopher Roach argued that the media's story can't be trusted.

"First, the initial prosecutor on the case, before the national media outcry, offered a detailed justification for his decision not to prosecute," Roach said. "Second, giving credence to the robbery theory, Arbery has a felony criminal record—for bringing a gun to a high school football game and a later probation violation for shoplifting. He was said to have been seen by one of the suspects days earlier casing the neighborhood.

"Third, Arbery may have been confined involuntarily for mental health reasons, as the D.A.’s letter mentions," Roach added. "The video shows him, without hesitation, attacking one of the men who were blocking his way. No media reports have followed up on this interesting tidbit. Finally, while Arbery is indeed running on the video, was he actually just a jogger out in the neighborhood? He was wearing what appear to be long jean shorts and high-top basketball shoes—not exactly jogging attire."


My take.

It all seems pretty cut and dried to me. The McMichaels are guilty of murder. The only question in my mind, really, is whether William Bryan is too.

Let's remember something fundamental here: Despite the unfortunate headline of this newsletter, Ahmaud Arbery isn't on trial. The men who shot him are. The fundamental question is whether they had legal grounds to initiate a citizen's arrest in the first place, and none of the men has established that they did. They have only established that they saw a Black man running down the street and assumed he just committed a crime.

The man who owned the home in question, the one under construction, testified he did not know of anything ever being taken from the construction site — that he never asked the McMichaels to confront anyone on his site, and that he'd seen other people — including a white couple — exploring the property as well. He'd only once reported something stolen from his property, but it wasn't from the construction site.

The initial police accounts after the shooting are also damning. Bryan told police that Travis McMichael called Arbery a "fucking n—r" while he was lying on the ground dead. Gregory McMichael referred to Arbery as an "asshole" to police as he lay dead on the street 30 feet from him, despite never having met or spoken to him before that day. Gregory also told police that he instructed Arbery to "stop" or "I'll blow your fucking head off" while following him down the street, which Travis later testified he never heard his dad say. Travis also initially told police he couldn't say for sure if Arbery grabbed his gun. Text messages and social media posts showed Travis regularly using racial slurs, and the men had a Confederate flag vanity plate on the pick-up truck they chased Arbery down in.

So, I’m sorry: but yes, this case is about race, too. I’ll be the first to point out when the media or the left is “making something about race” that isn’t, but if we can’t call out the racism of someone who regularly uses the N-word, even moments after shooting a Black man three times, and drives around in a truck with a Confederate flag vanity plate, we’re just kidding ourselves. That’s to say nothing of the assumptions they made about Arbery being a criminal. Of course, Travis McMichael denies using the N-word to describe Arbery, and the only witness is Bryan. But Bryan had absolutely no motivation in the moments after the fact to lie about such an event to the police, and Travis's own social media posts and texts make Bryan’s story sound quite credible.

The reason the prosecution has focused so little on race, meanwhile, is that they probably assume it is a losing strategy when 11 of the 12 jurors are white, and this is despite Brunswick county being majority Black. There's no need to try to convince the jury that the two men are racist and risk turning the trial into a case about race, when the only legal question here is whether the men had reasonable cause to grab their guns and chase Arbery down the street — which the evidence shows they did not.

Even if we were to paint the absolute worst-case-scenario of Arbery, one where he had stolen something or vandalized the construction site in anyway (again, there is still no evidence of any such actions), and then jogged away because he sensed he had been seen, and then the men chased him down, instructed him to stop, and he refused... I'd still think they were guilty of murdering him. You don't get to chase an unarmed person down the street for trespassing or petty theft or vandalism, yell threatening things at them, point loaded guns at them, corner them, and then claim self-defense when they try to disarm you. Especially not after you've been chasing and threatening them for five minutes and still haven't called the police for help.

Even worse, the McMichaels never claimed they were attempting a citizen’s arrest until they got legal advice, never had a specific crime they were trying to arrest Arbery for (besides maybe trespassing?), and hadn't even called the police when they told Arbery they were trying to stop him for questioning (another neighbor had already called the police when he saw Arbery, which is why they showed up).

As for Bryan, his case is more interesting. Prosecutors claimed he helped pursue Arbery, that you can hear him cocking a weapon in the video of Arbery, and that he participated in his killing. Bryan has claimed he was only trying to help and then recorded the incident, but didn't know the McMichaels were armed when he initially pursued them and wasn't armed himself. I'm not sure what happens to him in this case, but it seems far more important that the McMichaels get convicted of murder.

Regardless, it's another heartbreaking story. One that, unlike the Rittenhouse case, has very obvious and clear racial elements that we as a nation should be able to reckon with and acknowledge. I can't say for sure I know what the jury will do, and I'm rarely ever going to say that putting someone in prison will help them or society, but anything short of a guilty verdict for the McMichaels would be a horrific injustice.


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During the pandemic, Target announced that it was going to give its employees off and close all of its stores for Thanksgiving. A few years ago, many retailers began starting the Black Friday shopping blitz on Thursday night after Thanksgiving to compete with online stores. Many retailers were criticized for making thousands of people work during the holidays. Last year, though, they had to change their schedule during the pandemic to reduce the number of people in stores, and saw their profit and sales in October and November actually rise. Now, Target says it is making the change permanent, and plans to keep stores closed for Thanksgiving — freeing up its workers to be at home with their families. CNBC has the story.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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