The citizen’s arrest law that Ahmaud Arbery‘s accused killers used in an attempt to justify their deadly violence could play an outsized role in their murder trial. And in a case with such heavy racial overtones, the fact that the law is rooted in slavery surely will not help their causes.
Jury selection got underway last week as the trial officially got underway ahead of opening arguments, which will undoubtedly include a reference or two (or more) about Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute and whether accused murderer Travis McMichael, who held the shotgun that killed Arbery, had legally acted in self-defense, as he claims.
In the months before Arbery’s killers were charged, a revolving cast of Georgia prosecutors — each with his or her own conflicts of interest in the case — told the police that McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael and their friend, William “Roddie” Bryan, who filmed the killing, acted legally under the state’s citizen’s arrest law.
The accused killers have maintained that they suspected Arbery was burglarizing nearby homes and initiated a citizen’s arrest that turned deadly. What is closer to the truth is that the three men likely racially profiled Arbery, who was out for a jog in Satilla Shores, a subdivision which about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick, armed themselves, jumped in trucks and chased him down, trapped him with their vehicles and shot him dead in the street in broad daylight on Feb. 23, 2020.
Michael J. Moore, an Atlanta lawyer who formerly served as a U.S. attorney in Georgia, said last year that the citizen’s arrest defense is “flawed” because the defendants were the aggressors.
“The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime,” Moore said.
The Civil War-era statute was finally repealed in May after more than a century of being on the books.
A new, updated version of the law now prevents private citizens from conducting arrests on others and states that a detained person must be released if authorities do not arrive within an hour.
Beyond being outdated, citizen’s arrests laws have roots in early slave patrols of the late 1600s. Enacted in 1863, possibly as a response to the Emancipation Proclamation, Georgia’s law was created to capture enslaved people running away to join the Union Army. Opponents argue the laws enabled vigilante justice, targeting Black people.
Mercer law professor Tim Floyd previously pointed to the law as being used by white lynch mobs as a justification for their actions. The McMichaels actions mirrored those of a lynch mob, chasing down the young man simply for daring to exist.
Often confused with stand your ground laws, or even traditional self-defense, citizen’s arrests have emboldened violent attacks on Black people.