Ahmaud Arbery Murder Suspects Face Federal Hate-Crime Charges
Regardless of the verdict, the Arbery murder suspects still face federal hate-crime charges.
Nov. 23, 2021, 8:29 a.m. ET
Regardless of the jury verdict in the state of Georgia’s prosecution of the men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, all three will face hate-crime charges in federal court in February.
The suspects — Travis McMichael; his father, Gregory McMichael; and William Bryan, known as Roddie — were each charged by the Justice Department last spring with interfering with Mr. Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race, and with attempted kidnapping.
Travis and Gregory McMichael were also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm. Travis McMichael is accused of shooting Mr. Arbery.
The men intimidated Mr. Arbery “because of Arbery’s race and color,” the eight-page federal indictment said. The McMichaels and Mr. Bryan are white; Mr. Arbery was Black.
Mr. Bryan told investigators that he heard Travis McMichael use a racial slur after shooting Mr. Arbery, fueling the notion that the killing was motivated by race. Mr. McMichael’s defense team has denied the claim.
The men did not face hate-crime charges at the state level because Georgia had no such law at the time of Mr. Arbery’s death. The state Supreme Court struck down a hate-crime statute in 2004 for being too vague, making Georgia one of the few states without such a statute.
But Mr. Arbery’s killing united Republican and Democratic lawmakers, leading them to pass a new hate-crime law months afterward.
Georgia’s new statute allows for extra penalties for people who commit crimes against others based on their race, gender, sexual orientation and other identities. Law enforcement officials are required to file reports of these kinds of crimes so the state can track them.
Hate-crime cases can be difficult to prosecute because of the need to prove that the motive is directly tied to a victim’s identity. Still, the application of the laws often provides reassurance to victims and their families because it acknowledges the distinct nature of those crimes.
“There’s a feeling it wasn’t just an ordinary crime, there was something particularly egregious about this offense, and hate-crime laws offer us a way of recognizing that and offer sort of an official way for our society to say these behaviors are particularly awful,” said Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus, with expertise in hate crimes.
The first test of Georgia’s law may be the trial of Robert Aaron Long, the man facing the death penalty for a shooting rampage at three spas in the Atlanta area in March. The use of the law in a case that has drawn national attention, however, does not mean its use will become widespread.
“Just because the law is seen as valid and has been used in a high-profile case or two, it still doesn’t mean that it’s going to necessarily have a lot of practical use,” Ms. Gerstenfeld said.