Did shooting suspect Gregory McMichael get special treatment because he had been a longtime investigator at the Brunswick Circuit District Attorney’s office?
ATLANTA (AP) — There was an abundance of evidence when officers arrived at the scene on a February afternoon in coastal Georgia: A man, apparently unarmed, lying on the street, soaked in blood. The suspected shooter, a shotgun, eyewitnesses. And a video of the incident.
But no arrests were made in the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery for more than two months, not until after video of the shooting in Brunswick surfaced and stoked a national uproar over race relations.
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Local prosecutors are now under investigation for their handling of the case. And questions have surfaced: Did shooting suspect Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory, both white, get special treatment because the elder McMichael had been a longtime investigator at the Brunswick Circuit District Attorney’s office? Might the outcome have been different if Arbery weren’t black?
According to the police report, Gregory McMichael said he saw a person he suspected of burglary “hauling ass” down the street. He ran inside his house, calling for his son Travis. The two grabbed their guns, hopped into a pickup truck and chased him.
Gregory McMichael told police they wanted to talk to Arbery and tried to corner him, but he began to “violently attack” Travis McMichael. The two fought over the shotgun, and Arbery was shot. The McMichaels claimed self-defense.
The father and son were questioned, and police called the district attorney’s office, where Gregory McMichael had worked for more than two decades, for legal advice. They were released.
Meanwhile, Arbery’s mother got a call from an investigator.
“He went on to say that Ahmaud was involved in a burglary, and in the midst of the burglary he was confronted by the homeowner, and in the midst of that confrontation, there was a fight over the firearm and Ahmaud was shot and killed,” Wanda Cooper-Jones told The Associated Press.
Police say they were told the day of the shooting that more follow-up was needed but the McMichaels weren’t flight risks and could go home. A second prosecutor was brought in after the first recused herself because Gregory McMichael had worked for her, and he quickly decided no charges were necessary. He was eventually removed over his own conflict of interest — his son works at the Brunswick Circuit.
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In any homicide, it’s important to interview witnesses immediately while the facts are still fresh in their minds and before they’ve had a chance to coordinate stories. If that was delayed because officers were told not to make arrests, it could be problematic, said J. Tom Morgan, a former metro Atlanta district attorney who is now a criminal defense lawyer.
Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson said there is also a tendency to treat a crime scene differently if a current or former law enforcement officer is involved, as was the case with Gregory McMichael.
The case seemed to have stalled until May 5, when a video was posted to the website of a local radio station.
The shaky footage shows Arbery, dressed in shorts and a white top, running from the McMichaels. The driver’s side door is open. Travis McMichael and Arbery appear to struggle over the gun. Gregory McMichael hops from the back of the truck. Arbery is shot and falls to the ground. It doesn’t show Arbery with a firearm, nor have police said they recovered one.
The legal case now stretches beyond coastal Georgia, with the FBI weighing potential federal hate crime charges. And more evidence is emerging.