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Federal Jury Finds Ahmaud Arbery's Murder A Hate Crime Following Extensive Advocacy And Political Pressure

By Dove Barbanel | Last updated on

Ahmaud Arbery was a victim of a hate crime, a federal jury found on Tuesday, February 22, 2022 -- just shy of two years after Arbery was killed while jogging through Satilla Shores, Georgia. Last month, the defendants were found guilty of murder and other charges in state court and sentenced to life in prison. A new jury has concluded that the three defendants who pursued, cornered, and killed Arbery with a shotgun were motivated by racial animus. 

The case attracted significant attention from legal advocates, civil rights leaders, politicians, and grassroots groups locally and internationally. Many saw Arbery as one more tragic victim of violence in America for the offense of "running while Black." His story inspired and popularized a social media hashtag, #IRunWithMaud, which led to recurring 2.23-mile protest runs in Arbery's memory. 

The hate crime trial itself only took place after Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, convinced the judge to reject an earlier plea deal with federal prosecutors as too lenient. In fact, the political pressure and advocacy both in and out of court played an essential role throughout the lifetime of the case.

Arbery's Death and Stymied State Prosecutions

Arbery's death on February 23, 2020, only attracted widespread attention when a video taken by one of the perpetrators was released on social media several months later. The video seemed to show the three perpetrators: a father, son, and their neighbor. The perpetrators followed Arbery in two vehicles and attempted to confront him before firing three shots at him with a shotgun and leaving him to bleed to death. Arbery, 25, was a former high school football star who lived in his mother's house in a neighboring community and who regularly enjoyed jogging through the area.

Including the federal prosecutors, the case went through five different prosecutors' offices. The original prosecutor assigned to the case, Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, opted not to arrest the perpetrators before recusing herself because one of the perpetrators was an ex-colleague. Following public outcry, Johnson lost her position in the next election and was later indicted for violating the oath of a public officer and obstructing justice.

The case was transferred to Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill. Barnhill recommended no arrests be made, arguing in a memorandum that the murder was "justifiable homicide" under Georgia's citizens' arrest law (a widely maligned opinion). After this, Barnhill also recused himself because his son worked in the Brunswick District Attorney's office and was an ex-colleague of a perpetrator. The case was then transferred to Atlantic District Attorney Tom Durden.

Several weeks later, on May 5, 2020, the video of Arbery's death was made public, sparking outrage. The video was initially released to a local radio station by an attorney who had consulted with the perpetrators. With support from the governor and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, arrests were finally made in the case on May 7 on charges of felony murder

Durden then successfully sought transfer of the case to the Cobb County District Attorney's office, a larger office with more resources located in the Atlanta metropolitan area and led by Joyette M. Holmes. The transfer to the Cobb office, applauded by Arbery's family and their attorneys, led to a successful state prosecution of the three perpetrators.

The Federal Trial

A federal grand jury indicted the perpetrators of Arbery's murder in April 2021 for, among other charges, "Criminal Interference with Federally Protected Rights" under 18 U.S.C. § 245. The statute "makes it unlawful to willfully injure, intimidate, or interfere with any person, or attempt to do so by force or threat of force, because of that person's race."

The three men accepted a plea deal to serve 30 years in federal prison in exchange for pleading guilty to the hate crimes. But District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the plea deal at the urging of Arbery's mother, who thought it was too lenient, an unusual example of successful intervention by the victim's family in a high-profile case.

At trial, prosecutors called 20 witnesses, and statements by all three perpetrators evincing racial animus were presented. On February 22, 2022, the perpetrators were found guilty of all counts by a jury with only one Black member, the jury foreman, who teared up as he read the verdict.

Hate Crimes And Citizen's Arrest Laws

Advocates welcomed federal hate crimes charges partly because Georgia had no hate crimes law at the time. The Georgia Supreme Court struck down a prior hate crimes law dating from 2000 in Botts v. State for unconstitutional vagueness. The court held that the statute's use of the terms "bias or prejudice" was unclear and failed to provide fair warning of the prohibited conduct. 

A new hate crimes law was signed into law in Georgia on June 26, 2020, but that came too late to apply to the Arbery case. The new law provides enhanced criminal sentencing for anyone who intentionally commits a hate crime based on race or several other protected attributes.

In his article "Ahmaud Arbery, Reckless Racism and Hate Crimes: Recklessness as Hate Crime Enhancement," Ekow N. Yankah argues that the new Georgia hate crimes law does not go far enough. He points out that it would be difficult to prove that the perpetrators intentionally committed a hate crime since they claimed they were only pursuing Arbery because they suspected him of committing property crimes. Yankah argues that intentional racism is controversial and outdated, and the proper mens rea for hate crime enhancement statutes should be recklessness or "reckless racism." In this case, he argues the perpetrators must have consciously ignored a substantial and unjustified risk that they were motivated to act violently towards Arbery because of his race, evincing criminal recklessness. Ultimately, he questions whether hate crime legislation can adequately solve the problem of racist violence.

Read the full article and thousands more law review articles with a free trial of Westlaw Edge.

The perpetrators of Arbery's murder claimed authority to stop him under Georgia's citizen's arrest laws. Chad Flanders, Rainia Brooks, Jack Compton, and Lyz Riley argue that citizen's arrest laws have a long and puzzling history in an article in the Howard Law Journal entitled "The Puzzling Persistence of Citizen's Arrest Laws And The Need To Revisit Them." They theorize that, on the one hand, such laws are part of an ideology of "citizen empowerment," going back to the common law and present nearly unchanged in every state. On the other hand, these laws have been hijacked and used unlawfully in the service of white supremacy. They see in the Arbery case and others "a more or less coherently racist view that sees the criminal law—whether enforced by private citizens or by state police—as a tool for the oppression of black bodies." Georgia amended its citizen's arrest law in May 2021 to narrow the scope of arrests by private persons to specific categories of people, like private detectives and security guards.

Victor C. Romero identifies a racial debate in SCOTUS's decision in Ramos v. Louisiana and connects the Justices' views to social and legal debates around vigilante policing of Black Americans, like Ahmaud Arbery, in an article in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal entitled "Racism, Incorporated: Ramos v. Louisiana And Jogging While Black." He notes a debate in Ramos between "color consciousness" and "color blindness" as regards the racial history of laws that are race-neutral on their face. Romero points to laws that allow people to arm themselves, conduct citizen's arrests, and then use stand-your-ground laws as a self-defense tactic, creating the risk of death for Black people. He argues that Arbery's death "teaches us that law-and-order policies perpetuate racial discrimination given society's ingrained view that young Black males threaten public safety."

Copycat Hate Crimes?

While the federal trial of Arbery's killers was a success, constant vigilance by Arbery's family, advocates and activists kept the case in the spotlight, leading to fears that similar cases might go unpunished. Only a few weeks before the verdict in federal court, a very similar crime took place in Brookhaven, Mississippi, thankfully with less tragic consequences. On January 24, 2022, 24-year-old D'Monterrio Gibson was making delivery rounds in an unmarked FedEx truck when a father and son suddenly pursued him, the father chasing him in a vehicle while the son allegedly signaled to Gibson to stop while standing in the road in front of him and pointing a gun. Gibson, who is Black, managed to veer away from the assailants and escaped, but his truck was riddled with bullet holes. When he called 911 to report the incident, Gibson found that the assailants had already called, to report him as a "suspicious person." Several days later, the assailants turned themselves over to the police.

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