A Glynn County grand jury will decide whether charges are warranted against the two men involved in the Feb. 23 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery on a Sunday afternoon on a neighborhood street.
That is the decision of Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden, the Liberty County-based DA who was assigned to review the case. Durden said Tuesday he believes the evidence presented warrants criminal charges against Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael. The two men who armed themselves and pursued Arbery, 25, to a deadly confrontation in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in southern Glynn County, according to a county police report.
“It warrants grand jury consideration of criminal charges,” Durden told The News on Tuesday, shortly after releasing a statement on his decision. “I wouldn’t be presenting this case if I didn’t think so.”
Greg McMichael, 64, a long-time investigator with the Brunswick Judicial Circuit DA and a former Glynn County policeman, told police he saw Arbery running down Satilla Drive at around 1:09 p.m. and suspected him of burglary. After pursuing him to Satilla Drive and Buford Road, Travis McMichael exited the pickup truck armed with a shotgun. Travis McMichael, 34, fired three times during the ensuing struggle with Arbery, who stumbled to the pavement and died on scene.
Civil rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center support the cries from folks nationwide that the shooting was racially motivated. Arbery was black. The McMichaels are white, living in a mostly-white neighborhood.
Durden’s decision came on the day that a local radio station released a chilling video of the fatal shooting. The station said the video was provided by an anonymous source.
The video is taken by cell phone from a person driving a vehicle behind Arbery as he runs down a road in Satilla Shores. Arbery runs toward a pickup stopped in the middle of the road. Gregory McMichael is squatting in the truck bed, holding a pistol.
Travis McMichael steps out of the driver’s side of the truck with a shotgun as Arbery approaches. Arbery tries to run around the passenger side of the truck. Travis McMichael approaches Arbery at the front of the truck. A struggle for the gun ensues, leading both men staggering to the driver side of the truck. Travis McMichael fires three times. Arbery stumbles and falls in the road after the third shot. Travis McMichael walks away, expressionless.
Arbery wore shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes. There is no evidence he was armed.
Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father, has retained civil rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump to represent him.
“This outrageous case shows just how dangerous it is to be black in America. A black man can’t jog through a neighborhood without being chased and gunned down execution style,” Crump said in a statement. “We will not rest until we see justice for this family.”
The Rev. John D. Perry II, president of the local NAACP, said he sympathizes for the pain this video’s public airing has caused Arbery’s family and friends. The video also was picked up on local social media outlets. But Perry said the video speaks volumes about whether charges are warranted.
“When you look at the video it is clearly evident that this young man is having to fight for his life,” Perry said. “In this situation it’s either fight or flight. I don’t know what was in their hearts, but that was an overzealous act on their behalf. They put him in a situation where he had to fight for his life. They created the circumstances for that to happen, and they have to be held accountable.”
Durden said he based his grand jury decision on a review of evidence presented in the case, which was initially investigated by the Glynn County Police Department.
Durden’s decision also is based on information gathered from subsequent contact with the county police department, as well as information gathered from the FBI, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia.
“I am of the opinion that the case should be presented to the grand jury of Glynn County for consideration of criminal charges against those involved in the death of Mr. Arbery,” Durden said in a statement issued Tuesday.
Durden noted that grand juries are not presently being called, due to social distancing precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The freeze on empaneling grand juries will remain in effect through June 12, at least.
The shooting case has already been shifted to three DA offices, gaining an emotionally charged national audience in the process. Brunswick Judicial Circuit DA Jackie Johnson immediately claimed a conflict of interest, citing Greg McMichael’s service of more than 20 years with her office. It was next assigned to Ware County DA George E. Barnhill.
However, Barnhill stepped down after a conflict in the case was raised because his son is an attorney in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, where Greg McMichael worked before retiring in May of 2019.
That state Attorney General’s Office assigned the case to DA Durden on April 13. In his statement Tuesday, Durden acknowledged the pandemic-induced delay could cause more public frustration over the case. However, Durden feels it imperative that a grand jury review the facts.
“I have no control over the suspensions due to the pandemic,” Durden said in the statement. “However, I do intend to present the case to the next available grand jury in Glynn County.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp tweeted on Tuesday night that Georgia Bureau of Investigation director Vic Reynolds has offered resources and manpower to Durden "to ensure a thorough, independent investigation" into Arbery's death.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement that "based on the footage and news reports that I have seen, I am deeply concerned with the events surrounding the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. I expect justice to be carried out as swiftly as possible, and I stand ready to support GBI Director Reynolds, DA Durden and the local community."
Perry said Durden’s decision is a step in the right direction. However, Perry feels it would be more appropriate to send it to a grand jury outside the immediate area. He noted Gregory McMichael’s past connections with the judicial system and the Glynn County police department.
“We’re glad that he’s sending it to a grand jury, but we have concerns about that grand jury being held here because of the established relationships,” Perry said. “We would feel more comfortable if the grand jury were held in Atlanta or somewhere outside the radius of established relationships.”
A former all-star linebacker at Brunswick High, Arbery was known by friends and family to be an avid jogger. The first 911 caller on Feb. 23 reported Arbery had gone inside a house under construction. When he asked if Arbery was breaking in, the caller said, “No. It’s all open. It’s under construction.”
Then, Arbery started running down the road, the man told the dispatcher.
“I just need to know what he was doing wrong,” the dispatcher said at one point.
While the case may have racial overtones, Perry said folks in the Golden Isles have not been divided by it.
“Overall, our community has been doing a great job,” Perry said. “One social media there has been a cry as one that this was senseless and justice needs to be done. I am proud of our community, holistically. They have spoken out, loudly and definitively.”