Department of Justice will probe Ahmaud Arbery's killing as a federal hate crime: reports

The department is weighing "charges against state officials and other conspirators," Arbery's family attorneys say

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published May 26, 2020 11:52AM (EDT)

Family of Ahmaud Arbery embrace at the Glynn County Courthouse during a protest of the shooting death of Arbery on May 8, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Family of Ahmaud Arbery embrace at the Glynn County Courthouse during a protest of the shooting death of Arbery on May 8, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The Justice Department is investigating the killing of Ahmaud Arbery as a possible hate crime, multiple news outlets reported Monday.

Attorneys for Arbery's family told CBS News that Bobby Christine, the U.S. attorney for Georgia's Southern District, will investigate why it took months to arrest the suspects in the case and whether the area has a record of violating the rights of citizens. Christine told the outlet he plans to file criminal and civil charges in the case.

CNN and PBS News separately confirmed the report.

PBS News correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reported that Christine met with Arbery's parents on Thursday and told them the Justice Department was investigating the law enforcement response for "possible equal protection violations."

"[Christine's] office is investigating why it took so long to arrest the individuals responsible for Mr. Arbery's death," the attorneys said in a statement. "This would involve the consideration of both civil and criminal charges against state officials and other conspirators involved in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

"We left that meeting feeling satisfied that the DOJ would do their part to fully investigate all players involved in this murder and that they would hold those responsible accountable," the lawyers added.

The reports come after Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asked the Department of Justice to investigate the case. The department said earlier this month that it would consider whether "hate crime charges are appropriate."

Georgia is one of four states with no hate crime statues, but the department is able to bring federal charges under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed black man, was shot and killed while jogging about two miles from his home in Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23. Prosecutor George Barnhill, who has since recused himself from the case, told police there was "insufficient probable cause." He argued that the two men were legally armed and cited the state's citizen's arrest and self-defense statutes.

The McMichaels were only charged in the murder after a video recorded by a neighbor which appears to show the shooting surfaced online. Both men were arrested days later, on May 9. 

Former police officer Gregory McMichael, 64, told police that he and his son Travis, 34, followed Arbery in their truck after recognizing him from surveillance footage of an open construction site. A neighbor later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the suspects confronted Arbery at the site days before the shooting.

Travis McMichael was charged with murder and aggravated assault, and his father was charged with party to murder and aggravated assault. William Bryan, the neighbor who shot the video, was charged with murder and attempted false imprisonment last week after an initial police report said he had tried to block Arbery's escape with his car during the pursuit. Bryan has claimed he had "nothing to do" with Arbery's death.

S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery's family, told TMZ that the Department of Justice is "spreading the net" in the area.

"This case makes it clear that all black citizens in South Georgia aren't getting the same protection under the law," he said. "If you shoot anybody in the street in broad daylight, just in general, you expect at least an arrest. There were no arrests made. We went for three months without any major arrests."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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