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Editorial: Justice served in Ahmaud Arbery case, a meager consolation for family and friends
ArberyTrial
This combo of booking photos provided by the Glynn County, Ga., Detention Center, shows from left, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan Jr. (Associated Press)

With the Ahmaud Arbery verdict, there is an inclination to want to take a sort of sad satisfaction in the knowledge that despite all the racially tinged factors of the case the jury got it right and justice was served.

We want the world to see that a Georgia jury including 11 White people acted in color-blind allegiance to the law and found three White defendants guilty of the vigilante murder of a young Black man, despite the high-profile nature of the case, the national publicity, and intense scrutiny from every direction.

And there is legitimacy to that position, a validation of positive change that cannot be ignored.

But there are also so many nagging instances of inappropriate behavior and judicial missteps interwoven into the case as to make you wonder if things have really changed as much as we would like to think.

Consider:

The initial investigation by local law enforcement was downplayed and drew very little attention at all. The local newspaper could not even get the name of the victim from police, having to use the coroner as a source. Local law enforcement stonewalled on releasing information about the killing to the media and the public and offered nothing to suggest the heinous scope of the murder. It was not until later when the GBI became involved that the investigation gained serious momentum.

Local prosecutors also were willing to allow the case to quietly slide without taking action. The district attorney for the Brunswick judicial circuit has now been charged with violating her oath of office and obstructing police work for things she did to discourage prosecution of the case even as she recused herself because of an obvious conflict of interest. A prosecutor from another circuit subsequently recused himself as well, but not before authoring a letter to police in which he said there was “insufficient probable cause to issue arrest warrants.”

The police didn’t want to pursue the case, the prosecutors didn’t see any need for arrests. Had it not been for the release of a video of the shooting, the entire affair may have been ignored. But the video shocked and enraged, and the ensuing public pressure brought about a belated push for justice.

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And what does it say about us as a society that we are making cellphone videos of people being killed, and sharing them publicly after the fact?

With an investigation by the GBI and prosecution by a team from Cobb County, the details of a wanton vigilante killing filled with the sort of racist imagery of another time in the deep South emerged. Armed White men in a truck chasing down an unarmed Black man, boxing him in and ultimately killing him with a shotgun, all in the name of making a “citizen’s arrest.”

The racial undertones of the case were impossible to ignore. President Joe Biden likened the incident to a “lynching.” One of the defense attorneys likened the pressure for conviction being applied by civil rights protestors at the courthouse to a “public lynching.”

The judge noted that some potential jurors seem to have been rejected because they were Black, but said it was done without the parameters of legal judicial procedures. An attention-seeking attorney called for a ban on “Black pastors,” in the courtroom, as though religious leaders of color should somehow be denied the same degree of access afforded others.

Another member of the defense team went so far as to demean the victim of the slaying by making reference to his “long, dirty toenails,” as if that somehow had any bearing on what had transpired and why. Perhaps she thought that since he was otherwise unarmed, the toenails would suffice as a weapon.

An initially lackluster investigation by law enforcement. Potential prosecutorial misconduct. Defense attorneys hoping to use race as a way to curry favor with a jury that was almost all White. There was a time when that combination would have worked to win acquittal in a lot of courtrooms across the South.

But it didn’t this time. Investigators from other agencies made the case; prosecutors from out of town conducted the trial, but it was a jury of men and women from Brunswick who rejected the defendants’ claim that they were trying to serve the public good and instead found them guilty of murder.

Now there will be appeals. And there are still federal hate crime charges to be tried. Despite the conviction, the case is far from over and will not be for years to come. But a first step has been taken.

For now, we can take some solace in knowing that, in this instance, justice was served, which is meager consolation for the family and friends of Ahmaud Arbery. 

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