SAVANNAH, Ga. — Outrage is spreading over a shooting of a black man that led to murder charges more than two months later against a white father and son, but “all that matters is what the facts tell us,” the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Friday.
And once the GBI was brought into the case, “we came up fairly quickly with the solid belief that there’s sufficient cause to charge them with felony murder and aggravated assault,” GBI director Vic Reynolds said at a news conference.
The investigation continues now that Gregory and Travis McMichael have been booked into the Glynn County Jail in the Feb. 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. Reynolds said “every stone will be uncovered.”
But in response to a question about any racial intent, Reynolds said “there is no hate crime in Georgia. There isn’t. It is one of four or five states that doesn’t have one.”
The McMichaels told police they pursued Arbery, with another person recording them on video, after spotting him running in their neighborhood. The father and son said they thought he matched the appearance of a burglary suspect who had been recorded on a surveillance camera.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, has said she thinks her son, a former high school football player, was just jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood before he was killed on a Sunday afternoon.
National outrage over the case swelled this week after the cellphone video was leaked and shared on social media.
Arbery would have been 26 years old Friday, and a crowd of several hundred people, most wearing masks, sang “Happy Birthday” in his honor outside the Glynn County Courthouse. Many expressed frustrations at the long wait before any arrests were made, and fears that the justice system will fail them.
“The work is just beginning,” John Perry, president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter, told the crowd. “We can’t stop now. We can’t lose focus and we’ve got to make sure the prosecution gets done.”
Anthony Johnson, 40, said Arbery was his neighbor for about a decade. He said he wants to see the McMichaels get the same treatment in the legal system as black defendants.
“Just arresting them, that ain’t doing nothing,” Johnson said. “We want them convicted. We want them sent to prison for life.”
The Players Coalition along with dozens of individual professional athletes sent a letter Friday to the U.S. Attorney General and FBI director, demanding a federal investigation.
The GBI announced the arrests the day after it began its own investigation at the request of an outside prosecutor. The felony murder charges against Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, mean that a victim was killed during the commission of an underlying felony, in this case aggravated assault. The charge doesn’t require intent to kill.
A GBI news release said the McMichaels “confronted Arbery with two firearms. During the encounter, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery.”
Some of the encounter was apparently recorded in two 911 calls, with a dispatcher trying to understand what the problem was.
“There’s a black male running down the street,” the caller says.
“I just need to know what he was doing wrong,” the dispatcher responds, in part.
In a second call six minutes later, someone can be heard yelling “Stop. … Dammit. Stop.” Then, after a pause, “Travis!”
The McMichaels’ first court appearance was set for 2 p.m. Friday via video from jail, Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump said.
Reynolds said he didn’t know whether the McMichaels had an attorney who could comment.
Gregory McMichael retired last year as an investigator for Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson; the connection caused Johnson to recuse herself. Waycross D.A. George E. Barnhill then got the case before recusing himself under pressure from Arbery’s family because his son works in Johnson’s office.
Durden had said he wanted a grand jury to decide whether charges are warranted, but Georgia courts are still largely closed because of the coronavirus. Durden said Friday that he won’t bow to public pressure from one side or another.
The leaked video shows a black man running at a jogging pace. The truck is stopped in the road ahead of him, with one of the white men standing in the pickup’s bed and the other beside the open driver’s side door.
The runner attempts to pass the pickup on the passenger side, moving just beyond the truck, briefly outside the camera’s view. A gunshot sounds, and the video shows the runner grappling with a man over what appears to be a shotgun or rifle. A second shot can be heard, and the runner can be seen punching the man. A third shot is fired at point-blank range. The runner staggers a few feet and falls face down.
“There’s no way without the video this would have occurred. I’m just glad the light’s shining very bright on this situation,” said Akeem Baker, one of Arbery’s close friends in Brunswick.
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the slain man’s father, Marcus Arbery, said “It’s a travesty of justice that they enjoyed their freedom for 74 days after taking the life of a young black man who was simply jogging.”
Brunswick defense attorney Alan Tucker identified himself Thursday as the person who shared the video with the radio station. He did not say how he obtained it. In a statement, Tucker said he wasn’t representing anyone involved. He said he shared the video “because my community was being ripped apart by erroneous accusations and assumptions.”
The outcry over the killing reached the White House, where President Donald Trump offered condolences to Arbery’s family.
“I saw the tape and it’s very, very disturbing,” Trump said Friday on Fox News Channel.
“It’s a heartbreak. … very rough, rough stuff,” Trump added. “Justice getting done is what solves that problem. It’s in the hands of the governor and I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.”
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called Arbery’s death a “murder.” During an online roundtable Thursday, Biden said the video shows Arbery “lynched before our very eyes.”
“I watched the video depicting Mr. Arbery’s last moments alive,” Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said. “I can tell you it’s absolutely horrific, and Georgians deserve answers.”