While the federal hate crimes case will cover many of the same details as the state case in which a jury found the three men guilty of murder in a verdict just before Thanksgiving, it will focus more intensely on whether Arbery was singled out because of the color of his skin.
University of New Haven’s Mike Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice, said following the state trial that the prosecution may not have filed the case if Georgia’s hate crime law had been in effect at the time.
The outrage over Arbery’s death sparked enough momentum for the Georgia Legislature to follow through on passing a hate crimes law in 2020 and in the subsequent year repealing the citizen’s arrest law that dated back to antebellum.
“You could argue that if Georgia already had a hate crimes law and if that was actually charged as part of the state prosecution, maybe the feds wouldn’t have gotten involved,” Lawlor said.
According to Georgia and federal laws, more severe punishment can be meted out for crimes motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, or disability.
The McMichaels tried to avoid the federal trial through a deal with the prosecution, but they withdrew their guilty plea after a judge rejected the terms following the Abery’s family passionate requests for the judge to do so. Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, criticized the sentences that would have allowed both men to serve the first 30 years of their sentences in federal prison rather than a state prison.
“Ahmaud didn’t get an option of a plea,” Cooper-Jones said at last week’s plea hearing for Travis McMichael. “Ahmaud was hunted down. My son was killed.”
McMichael and Bryan are represented in the federal hate crimes trial by court-appointed lawyers. In the state trial, the McMichaels were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Bryan could be granted parole after being convicted of murder for helping detain the Arbery with his pickup truck after the jogger left the construction site of an unoccupied home.
The state’s case took a turn after the public release of cell phone footage Bryan recorded of the pursuit depicting Arbey’s final moments running down a street before he was gunned down by Travis McMichael with a shotgun at close range.
Legal experts warn that Travis McMichael’s testimony from the state trial will likely be used against him by federal prosecutors. The former U.S. Coast Guard officer testified that he shot Arbery because he feared for his life and his father’s safety when Arbery grabbed his shotgun during a struggle after the chase.
Former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Lee Johnson faces federal charges for allegedly showing favor to the suspect Greg McMicheal, who is a former Glynn police officer and investigator for the district attorney’s office.
Greg and Travis McMicheal and Bryan were arrested within weeks of the viral video that prompted Gov. Brian Kemp and state Attorney General Chris Carr to turn the case over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Cobb County District Attorney’s Office.
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