In the end, you could say that justice was done in the case of the death of Ahmaud Arbery. But you could also say — and should remember — that it was a near thing, that without the eventual release of a damning video showing the murder of a Black man killed while jogging, there’s every chance that none of the three vigilantes — Travis McMichael, who pulled the trigger, his father Gregory McMichael and neighbor William Bryan — would have even been tried first for murder and then for a hate crime, much less convicted in both cases.
So, was it a good thing? Yes. The system worked, sort of. Justice was done, if barely.
And most people — although it’s hard to know how many — must have been shocked at the ugly racism used by the defendants in messages taken from their cellphones, in testimony of racist remarks to colleagues, in the casual use of the N-word, in the descriptions of Black people as monkeys and savages.
For those who believed that in the 21st century, we might finally have grown past this kind of racism, racism in its rawest form, here was a trial that told us it’s not just systemic racism, or implicit racism, that lives on, but racism that is unabashed, unashamed and unapologetic.
But what message should we take from the juries’ verdicts? That’s a harder question. It’s clearly good that two mostly white Georgia juries — in both the state murder trial and in the federal hate-crime trial — rendered justice. There was a time not so long ago that that would never have happened.
And then there’s the fact that three prosecutors — one who recused herself and eventually was indicted for showing favoritism; one who said the McMichaels, father and son, had the perfect legal right to shoot and kill Arbery in a citizen’s arrest; one who apparently wasn’t up to the job — failed to bring charges against anyone? Finally, a Cobb County DA would pursue the murder case that, again, broke open only after a lawyer who had been consulting on the case leaked the video.
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He did so, he told the New York Times, because he thought it would show that, “It wasn’t two men with a Confederate flag in the back of a truck going down the road and shooting a jogger in the back.” In other words, the lawyer apparently believed the five-minute video of white men in trucks racing after Arbery, finally cornering him and then killing him would help the vigilantes’ cause. What should we take from that?
The three men had already been convicted of murder and only one, Bryan, would ever be eligible for parole. And so the federal prosecutors, in the hate-crimes trial, reached a deal with the two McMichaels to plead guilty, but Ahmaud Abery’s mother — Wanda Cooper Jones — objected to the deal, and the judge agreed with her. The reason for the trial, after all, was to show that racial animus was what led to the death of Arbery, an unarmed man who had often jogged through the neighborhood but made what turned out to be the fatal mistake of stopping a few times to look at a house under construction.
In the original trial, the prosecutors had tread lightly around the racial issue, concerned that concentrating on race — even though it clearly played a role — might distract the jury from the facts of the actual murder.
The murder case was about what happened. The hate crime case was about why it happened.
It also gave the lie to the notion, now popular in certain circles, that the real racism today is that against white males. In one of Donald Trump’s rants against those who would prosecute him for various crimes, he called them “radical, vicious, racist.” Why racist? Because four of the prosecutors are, yes, Black. And as Trump put it at a recent rally, the prosecutors “in reality, they’re not after me. They’re after you, and I just happen to be the person that’s in the way.”
The defendants tried to say that they were chasing Arbery because he had been seen on tape at the construction site and because there had been something of a crime spree in the neighborhood. Arbery had been seen in videos at the unfinished house, but they never showed him taking anything. When he was stopped and then killed, it was clear he hadn’t taken anything. There was never any evidence that he had ever taken anything. How many times have you looked into a house in your neighborhood that was still being built? And there was little evidence, either, of a crime spree.
As Justice Department lawyer Bobbi Bernstein told the jury in the hate-crime case, “At the end of the day, the evidence in this case will prove that if Ahmaud Arbery had been white, he would have gone for a jog, checked out a house under construction and been home in time for Sunday supper. Instead he went out for a jog, and he ended up running for his life. Instead he ended up bleeding to death, alone and scared, in the middle of the street.”
The fact that the three people chasing Arbery did not come to his aid, or help in any way, as he lay dying in the street almost certainly contributed to the jury’s quick verdict, which took only three hours to reach. When the video was shown during the trial of Arbery struggling to take his last breaths, several jurors cried.
We can celebrate the fact that the jurors did the right thing, although no guilty verdict can bring Ahmaud Arbery back to life. But that it took that video to get Arbery justice, a video that was leaked for all the wrong reasons, should make us all weep.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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