How a shaky cellphone video changed the course of the Ahmaud Arbery murder case
The first news story about the Feb. 23, 2020, shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a mere four paragraphs, offered little detail about what led to the death of the 25-year-old.
In the small coastal Georgia town of Brunswick, rumors swirled about a Black man who was shot while being pursued by two armed White men in a pickup truck, but no one was charged and the case received little attention nationally. It wasn’t until May 5, when a local radio station uploaded graphic footage of the deadly chase, that widespread outrage ensued. Two days later — 74 days after Arbery was killed while on a jog — arrests were made.
The convictions of Travis McMichael, 35, his father, Greg McMichael, 65, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, on Wednesday raised recollections of the beginning of the case when police let the men walk free and two prosecutors did not press charges. Yet, after just two days of deliberations, the jury found the three men guilty of murder and other charges for the pursuit and fatal shooting of Arbery.
“We came very close to this crime not being prosecuted at all,” said Clark D. Cunningham, a professor at the Georgia State University College of Law.
After the Brunswick district attorney and Waycross district attorney recused themselves without charging the men, Cunningham noted two aspects of the case that made the arrests — and subsequent convictions — possible: Greg McMichael’s decision to share the video of the slaying with the public and Arbery’s outspoken family receiving national support and attention.
“We shouldn’t count on those kinds of things for justice to be done,” Cunningham said.
Arbery, a former high school football standout and avid runner, was killed weeks before George Floyd. But it wasn’t until the release of the video — showing men chasing him, cornering him and shooting him on a quiet suburban street — that the violence helped amplify the racial justice demonstrations of last year.
In an unlikely turn of events, Greg McMichael, with the help of attorney Alan Tucker, brought Bryan’s unsteady cellphone footage to radio station WGIG with the hope of absolving the men in the court of public opinion, WSB-TV Channel 2 reported.
“There had been very little information provided by the police department or the district attorney’s office, but there was entirely too much speculation, rumor, false narratives, and outright lies surrounding this event,” Tucker told Georgia Public Broadcasting last year. Tucker did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post on Wednesday. The McMichaels’ attorneys did not immediately respond to similar requests Wednesday night.
Instead, the video published online by the radio station surfaced questions nationwide about racial profiling and the lack of criminal charges.
At the time, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, called it a lynching “before our very eyes.”
Like Cunningham, University of Maryland sociology professor Rashawn Ray said there wouldn’t have been a conviction, let alone a trial, without the video repeatedly aired in court after Greg McMichael made it public.
“Video is an objective observer,” Ray said. “It’s very clear what happened. And I think part of what the McMichaels were trying to leverage was what their defense attorneys were trying to allege: that the mere presence, the mere physical body of Ahmaud Arbery as a Black person just running through the street should pose a big enough threat to justify their use of force.”
For the nation, outrage ensued after the release of the footage of Arbery’s killing.
Journalists are reexamining their reliance on a longtime source: The police
But for Larry Hobbs, who wrote that first short news article, doubts about the case were raised at the onset.
Hobbs, one of four reporters at the daily Brunswick News, said police wouldn’t answer his questions or even tell him Arbery’s name, which he discovered by calling the coroner. He published four stories before he obtained the police report, based almost entirely on an interview with Greg McMichael, who said he told his son to grab his gun when he saw a Black man running.
“Red flags start going up,” Hobbs said. “All the things started falling into place that this wasn’t right.”
Prosecutors were also not forthcoming, he said. Jackie Johnson, the Brunswick district attorney who was later indicted over her handling of the investigation and was voted out of office, gave the case to Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill. Barnhill justified the use of force as a lawful “citizen’s arrest” in a letter to police. Meanwhile, he told Hobbs he was still investigating, Hobbs said.
“The main thing I did was just not let go of it,” Hobbs said. “I didn’t do any great writing. I didn’t do any investigative reporting. I’m a small-town newspaper. We don’t really have time to invest. I come in every day and there’s an empty newspaper I have to do my part to fill up.”
At that time, the New York Times reported on the shooting, bringing national exposure and emerging details of the video that would later be released. Still, Hobbs has been credited for his dogged reporting, as he stayed on the case, covering the trial every day until he wrote Wednesday’s story of the conviction.
“Guilty. Guilty. Guilty,” he wrote.
Leaving the courthouse, Hobbs spoke with Arbery’s father, Marcus, and choked up hearing him say his son just wanted to “run and dream.”
“In times of reckoning, we’ve come up wanting so many times, especially people from my demographic,” Hobbs said. “The South got it right today.”