Criminal Justice Relies On Equal Justice, Regardless of Race: The Case For Ahmaud Arbery

Published: May 7, 2020

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The killing of an unarmed black man in Georgia has sparked outrage across the country as it has now been over 70 days and no arrest has been made. This incident has been ignited after a video leaked showing the full confrontation between the antagonizers, Gregory and Travis McMichael, and the now slain man, Ahmaud Arbery. Civil rights advocates such as the Georgia NAACP are mobilizing and calling for justice. The situation has become bipartisan as both Republicans and Democrats are calling for action. Georgia’s Republican Governor, Brian Kemp, tweeted, “Georgians deserve answers… state law enforcement stands ready to ensure justice is served.” Presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, tweeted, “The video is clear: Ahmaud Arbery was killed in cold blood. My heart goes out to his family, who deserve justice and deserve it now. It is time for a swift, full, and transparent investigation into his murder.” The fatal shooting case of Ahmaud Arbery will be watched closely by all Americans, especially ones directly involved with the criminal justice system. The legal procedure for similar situations is clear. If justice is not afforded to this black man and his loved ones, our nation will witness a significant step backwards within the criminal justice reform movement.

The Ahmaud Arbery Case

On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25 year old black man was jogging midday in a Brunswick, Georgia neighborhood when he was confronted by an armed father and son pair. The father, 64-year old George McMichael, and son, 34-year old Travis McMichael, pursued Arbery in their truck and attempted to stop him. When Arbery refused to stop and instead began jogging in another direction away from the men, they again attempted to impede his path, this time successfully cutting him off with their truck. With a shotgun in hand, Travis McMichael dismounts from the truck and an altercation ensues between him and Ahmaud Arbery. This subsequently leads to Mr. Arbery being shot multiple times and fatally wounded.

The statement that George McMichael gave to police asserts that after witnessing Arbery jogging, he relayed to his son that he believed Arbery was a burglary suspect. The two men decided to pursue Arbery, both armed, claiming they feared Arbery would also be armed. Since the murder took place, the case has been passed on to three different district attorneys offices; the first two, who were nearest in location to the incident, recused themselves, citing a conflict of interest as they both had ties to George McMichael. George McMichael is a retired Glynn County police officer and former investigator for the District Attorney’s office in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. The third District Attorney, and the only one to act on the case, is Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney, Tom Durden. Durden is asking for a grand jury to consider criminal charges, however, it was not until a video was leaked showing the graphic details of the incident unfolding that this action finally occurred. The most recent reports from the AJC confirm that the video was recorded in real-time by a friend of the McMichaels, William “Roddie” Bryan. Details of how and why Bryan was recording the confrontation, or why he was on the scene are unclear at this time. To better understand the relevant information in this case, the legally relevant information, we asked respected Atlanta criminal defense attorney, and RED Board of Directors member, Manny Arora of Arora & LaScala Trial Attorneys, to share his insight on the case.

Manny Arora’s Legal Insight

Why Criminal Justice Reform Hinges On Equal Justice, Regardless Of Race

History of Justice Inequality

Extensive studies and research have concluded that race plays a part in how an individual is treated in their fight for equal justice. This phenomenon continues to play out in real life cases. A race-based case that garnered significant media attention in recent memory was the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Trayvon Martin was a black boy who was walking back home from the store with a bag of Skittles and a beverage in his hand when a white male, George Zimmerman, thought he “looked suspicious.” Against the recommendation of the 9-1-1 operator, Zimmerman took it upon himself to follow and antagonize Martin. This led to an altercation that concluded with  Zimmerman fatally shooting Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was charged with manslaughter and second-degree murder, but ultimately acquitted of all charges and released. Since the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, several racially charged murder cases followed in close succession. The sequence of racially charged murders gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement around the world. Black people were tired of feeling as if their life was devalued not only in the eyes of their fellow citizens, but also in the eyes of the criminal justice system that was supposed to grant them the same justice afforded to their supposed white counterparts.

Ahmaud Arbery’s case has similarities to Trayvon Martin’s. First, white males harass and project unto these black men a criminality which had no basis in reality. Then, after provoking these young men, they cling to self-defense as their justification for gunning down an unarmed individual who was not guilty of a crime. And, even though these two events occurred in two different states, they happened within a few hours drive of one another. Furthermore, none of the white males involved were initially detained by law enforcement or charged under suspicion of a crime being committed.

Minorities’ Mistrust Of The Criminal Justice System

As research and anecdotal evidence continue to highlight racial disparities in the criminal justice system, trust of the system has dwindled in the Black community. To exacerbate the issue, the media has been used as a tool to sow seeds of doubt in the public’s opinion on these cases. This particular case is no exception. There are media outlets who are choosing to give credibility to, and thus legitimizing the actions of the McMichaels. For example, defenders of the McMichael men are attempting to “muddy” Arbery’s image in the public’s eyes by highlighting a shoplifting conviction from his past. Lee Merritt, the attorney for Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, has summarily dismissed this as an absurd attempt to distract from the murder of Ahmaud by introducing details that have no relevance in this case. “These men were vigilante, and a posse in a modern-day lynching… Some obscure, indistinct crime in the community does not empower the entire community to hunt down a black man,” Merritt said. As some media outlets work hard at planting seeds of doubt in the public’s eyes with their questionable portrayals of Black victims as “not so innocent,” it is understandable why the Black community has a mistrust of the system. For the criminal justice system to be effective, equal justice for all must be the standard.

  

RED’s Belief That Criminal Justice Reform and Equal Justice Go Hand in Hand

RED’s restorative justice program, as well as the American criminal justice system, was built on the foundational belief that offenders who conduct themselves in a law-abiding manner will be acknowledged and given a well-deserved second chance. When our participants first come to us, many of them bring with them the perceptions from their communities about how justice is not realistically attainable to them. The majority of our program participants believe the criminal justice system is somehow meant for others but not for people like them. This belief has surfaced with each of our cohorts when we conduct our participant’s personal assessments. Our team must work hard to dispel this notion of justice being reserved for certain groups besides the ones they belong to, because we know that if these young men and women are to have hope for a brighter future, they must first believe that they have a chance and it is possible. A concrete example is our Know Your Rights module. In the Know Your Rights module, we instruct our participants how to effectively communicate and assert their rights in order to facilitate safe police-citizen encounters. Our participants are taught that this is one of their responsibilities in bridging the gap between law enforcement and community. Now, introduce the reversing effects of Ahmaud’s Arbery’s murder. Arbery’s case will cause us to lose credibility with our participants if we continue to teach them something that is proven to be untrue. Mr. Arbery was never in a position to assert his rights. Instead, he was gunned down in broad daylight.

Criminal justice reform not only calls for advancements to be made to the adjudication methods administered by courthouses nationwide. Criminal justice reform isn’t solely about administering restorative justice programs aimed at rehabilitating criminality. Criminal justice reform also demands that those entrusted with the discretion to enforce state laws be held strictly to the standards of the oath to which they have sworn to. These components of criminal justice reform cannot operate independently of one-another. Rather, they must operate collectively in order for the criminal justice system to produce just results. Justice can not continue to be a privilege granted for some and not for others.

Conclusion

The Ahmaud Arbery and McMichaels case has penetrated our nation’s core. We here at RED agree with the Republicans and Democrats who have spoken out and called on further action in this case. This is not an issue of party; this is an issue of justice. And, we will go a step further in saying that for America’s criminal justice system to be effective, equal justice for all must be the standard, not the exception. If justice in this country is not equal, then the meaning behind the words of our beloved Pledge of Allegiance, “with Liberty and Justice for all,” is hollow and should be changed to what it really means, “…with liberty and justice for some.”

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