Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers Plan To Use Repealed Civil War-Era Law As Their Defense On Trial

Update (Oct. 28, 2021): The three men on trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia are planning to use a Civil War-era citizens arrest statute from 1863 as their defense in court, despite the state recently repealing the mandate last year. 

According to Reuters, Georgia lawmakers revoked the law which allowed untrained civilians to make an arrest upon reasonable suspicion of a felony offense. After the killing of the 25-year-old and the public outrage over his death, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a repeal, as Blavity previously reported. Many who opposed the statute said it was put in place so that civilians could stop and return runaway enslaved people to captivity. 

Arbery, a Black jogger, was killed on Feb. 23, 2020, while the law was still in effect. Legal observers say prosecutors will attempt to convince the jury that Travis McMichael, 35, his father, Gregory McMichael, 65, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, didn’t have “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” when they charged Arbery during his run, Reuters reports.

“Citizen’s arrest is a big part of our case, a big part,” Kevin Gough, a lawyer for Bryan, said. “They changed the law, but changing the law doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t change what was the law of the land at the time.”

The three men said they chased Arbery in two pickup trucks through the predominantly white suburban neighborhood of Satilla Shores before fatally shooting him because they suspected him to be a burglar. 

The trial is currently in its second week of jury selection, which is proving to be a difficult process, CNN reports. Of the 60 people that have been questioned, many have formed strong opinions on the case or have seen some form of propaganda online from both sides of the story. All three are charged with malice, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

Original (May 11, 2021): Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a repeal of the state’s 1863 citizen’s arrest law, which previously stated that bystanders could make an arrest if they witnessed a crime. The legislation, which was signed on Monday, comes a little over a year after Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot by white vigilantes who suspected the 25-year-old was a burglary suspect. 

“I think the state of Georgia is moving in the right direction by passing this particular bill,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said at the Georgia State Capitol, NPR reports. “Unfortunately, I had to lose my son to get significant change. But again, I’m still thankful.”

According to ABC News, the original citizen’s arrest law was used as a way to corral runaway formerly enslaved people and was utilized to validate the lynchings of Black people. 

“This bill makes Georgia the first state in the country to repeal its citizen’s arrest statute,” Kemp said before signing. “Today we are replacing this Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse, with language that balances the sacred right of self-defense of person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward.”   

The new legislation states deadly force can’t be used to detain someone unless it’s in self-protection, protecting a home or preventing a forcible felony, maintaining Georgia’s “stand your ground” law. In addition, business employees are still allowed to detain someone they believe stole something, and lets restaurant employees apprehend anyone who tries to leave without paying for a meal. Licensed security guards and private detectives are also permitted to detain people, ABC News reports. 

“I ask the governor and my fellow legislators to continue pursuing the goal of criminal justice reform,” Georgia Sen. Tonya Anderson said. “There is more work to do and we are prepared to do it, together as one Georgia.”

The dated law is the second of its kind to be passed in light of Arbery’s death. Following the outrage of Arbery’s death, Gov. Kemp signed the Georgia Anti-Hate Crimes Act into law in June 2020 with bipartisan support, WABE reported. The bill imposes heavier consequences for anyone who commits crimes against a person based on their race, gender, sexual orientation and more.

“Last year, upon the passing of hate crimes legislation, the [Georgia Legislative Black] Caucus made a pledge to end the practice of citizen’s arrest,” Anderson said. “[On Monday], with the signing of his name, Gov. Kemp has helped us keep that pledge. We are now the first state to repeal citizen’s arrest and I hope not the last.”

The three men involved in Arbery’s death, Greg and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, are all facing state and federal murder charges. On Tuesday, all of the suspects plead not guilty in a new indictment handed down by a federal grand jury two weeks ago. 

Bryan and the McMichaels are charged with one count each of interference of rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels were also each charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.

A trial for the three men is set for October on state charges of felony murder, malice murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal contempt to commit a felony in the shooting death of Arbery. 

“The family is still focusing on criminal accountability and seeing this case through to a prosecution and appropriate sentencing on both state and federal levels,” Cooper-Jones’ attorney, Lee Merritt said.

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