Tuesday will mark the passing of one year since the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery on the quiet streets of Satilla Shores in Glynn County.
A lot has happened since that fateful day. Three men have been arrested on charges of murder and remain in the Glynn County Detention Center awaiting trial, which may still be months away.
Travis McMichael shot Ahmaud Arbery dead with a 12-gauge shotgun on a neighborhood street in the middle of the afternoon on Feb. 23, 2020, during a struggle for the gun McMichael had armed himself with.
Travis’s father, Gregory McMichael, watched the shooting death from the bed of a pickup truck, gripping a .357 magnum pistol in his right hand.
Moments earlier, William “Roddie” Bryan saw Arbery run past his home with the McMichaels pursuing him in the truck driven by Travis McMichael. Bryan jumped into his pickup truck and joined in the chase of Arbery through the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
The McMichaels said they armed themselves and pursued Arbery because they suspected him of burglarizing a home more than a block away from where the fatal shooting occurred. They told police they only wanted to question him.
The home in question was under construction, its doors and windows open.
Arbery, 25, was not armed. An investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined nothing from the house was found on his body.
Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and Bryan are White. Arbery was Black.
None of this is in dispute. Bryan used his cell phone to video the shooting death through the windshield of his pickup — a video that would ignite universal outrage when the image of Travis McMichael blasting three rounds of buckshot into Arbery at point-blank range went viral online.
What remains is for a jury of their peers to decide whether the actions of the three men amount to malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Those are the charges a Glynn County grand jury formalized against the McMichaels and Bryan last June.
When this high-profile case might go to trial is an open-ended question that begins with a worldwide pandemic. All jury trials in Georgia have been suspended since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out last March.
Jury trials will remain suspended through at least March 9, according to Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton.
Meanwhile, Travis McMichael, 35, Gregory McMichael, 65, and Bryan, 51, have been held without bond in the Glynn County Detention Center since their arrests by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation last May.
And that is as straight-forward as it gets. Beyond these facts, the shooting death of Arbery is layered in complexity.
The case is being prosecuted by the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office from Atlanta, the third Georgia DA’s domain through which the case has passed. Chatham County Court Judge Timothy Walmsley from Savannah is presiding. The proceedings are being conducted in the Glynn County Courthouse.
Prior to the shooting, Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law had gone unchanged for more than 150 years. Georgia had no hate crimes law. Since then, the state has adopted a hate crimes law and its antiquated citizen’s arrest law is presently under intense scrutiny and revision in the state General Assembly.
Such progress is of little solace to Arbery’s grieving mother, Wanda Cooper Jones. Still, it is something.
“It is unfortunate that anybody’s son had to lose his life to get some change to come,” she told The News on Friday. “I miss my son all day, every day. But first, the hate crimes law was put in place back in the summer. And it was Tuesday that the citizen’s arrest law got (addressed), so that’s good. I didn’t realize before this that it was put in place after the Civil War. And here it is in 2020, and people are still trying to hide behind that law to commit murder.”
Jackie Johnson had served as the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney for 10 years leading up to Feb. 23, 2020. Due in no small part to public backlash over her handling of Arbery’s shooting death, Johnson, a Republican, was summarily defeated by independent challenger Keith Higgins in the November election.
Gregory McMichael was a career lawman. He was a year removed from retirement after a 20-plus year career as an investigator with the Brunswick DA’s office over which Johnson had presided. He had been a Glynn County police officer for seven years prior to his employment with the DA.
Johnson recused herself within hours of the shooting. Glynn County police made no arrests that day, nor did they detain any of the three men involved in the shooting.
Police did view and take into evidence Bryan’s video.
Johnson contacted Ware County DA George E. Barnhill that evening and asked him to offer guidance to county police. Barnhill’s son, George F. Barnhill, was an assistant prosecuting attorney with the Brunswick DA at the time. After reviewing the video the next day, Barnhill offered an unofficial opinion via email to county police that the McMichaels acted in self defense in the course of making a citizen’s arrest.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr would later say he was unaware of these interactions between Johnson, Barnhill and the police. He said neither Johnson nor Barnhill mentioned it to him before he appointed the case to Barnhill on Feb. 27.
Barnhill then recused himself in early April after objections raised by Arbery’s family, citing the younger Barnhill’s position with the Brunswick DA.
Carr appointed the Arbery case to Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden in Hinesville on April 13. Durden announced on May 5 that he would convene a Glynn County grand jury to consider criminal charges against Travis and Gregory McMichael. That same day a local radio station released Bryan’s video on its Facebook page; it was leaked to the station by a local attorney with no connection to the case.
The video was removed from the station’s Facebook page quickly afterward, but by then it had already spread around the world. Outrage was the prevailing reaction.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case late that same day. GBI investigators immediately descended on Glynn County. GBI agents led the two McMichaels men from their Satilla Drive home in handcuffs on the evening of May 7.
Bryan was subsequently arrested May 21.
Carr reassigned the case to the Cobb County DA in the wake of the McMichaels’ arrest.
Later that month, Carr asked the U.S. Department of Justice’s Southern Georgia District to investigate the actions of Johnson and Barnhill. There is no word on the status of that investigation, which includes assistance from the FBI and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
“I’m also hoping that Ms. Jackie Johnson and Mr. Barnhill are reprimanded for delaying justice,” Jones said.
Numerous hearings regarding the Arbery case have since transpired at the Glynn County Courthouse, including the grand jury proceedings in June that cemented the charges against the McMichaels and Bryan. Even though Travis McMichael shot Arbery, all three men face murder charges because prosecutors allege all three men committed felonies that resulted in Arbery’s death.
All three men have pleaded innocent. All three have sought and been denied bond. Due to COVID-19 precautions, the three defendants have appeared via live stream. The public and the media have viewed proceedings on video screen in the courthouse’s large jury room.
Attorneys Robert Rubin and Jason Sheffield of Decatur are representing Travis McMichael. Frank and Laura Hogue of Macon are representing Gregory McMichael. Local attorney and former Glynn County Public Defender Kevin Gough represents Bryan.
Though it is certainly unprecedented, the statewide pandemic-related court restrictions have not necessarily slowed the case, Rubin said Friday. High profile cases can stretch for several years before going to trial, he said.
Rubin maintains his client’s innocence, adding that he believes the chilling video ultimately will show that Travis McMichael acted in self defense.
“It’s not unusual for a murder trial to be pending this long,” Rubin said. “The case is not yet ripe for trial. We are convinced of our client’s innocence and we want to put this before a jury. We’re thankful that there’s a video ...”
Flynn Broady Jr. defeated Joyette Holmes in the Cobb County DA race in November. However, deputy chief assistant DA Jesse Evans continues to move the case forward for the prosecution, as he has throughout the hearings. Evans said Friday he is anxious to prosecute the case against the three defendants before a jury of their peers, and to bring justice for Arbery’s family.
“I am certain that Feb. 23 will be a particularly difficult day for Ahmaud Arbery’s family as the first anniversary of his murder,” Evans told The News via email. “This is a family of such immense strength. We look forward to the day when we can advance the case in court on their behalf.”
Jones said the Cobb DA’s office has been diligent in providing updates to her and Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery.
“I got a call from the DA’s office this week that the case is moving forward,” Jones said. “I’m very hopeful that I’ll get my prayers answered — and my prayer is to have all the defendants go to prison forever, that they’re never allowed to walk on free soil again.”