As nationwide protests continued Friday over the slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, Georgia authorities say hate-crime charges against his killers may not happen—because the law doesn’t exist in the state.
“There’s no hate crime [law] in Georgia,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds said at a Friday press conference. “I think it’s one of four or five states left in the union that doesn’t have a hate crime [law].”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation on Thursday charged Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, with murder and aggravated assault, two days after graphic footage emerged of them shooting and killing Arbery while he was out jogging on Feb. 23.
The two white men, who said they were chasing Arbery along the tree-lined road because they suspected him of being a burglar, have been booked into a Glynn County jail.
Reynolds said Friday the investigation is not over, confirming that William Bryan, the man who helped the McMichaels pursue Arbery and recorded the harrowing video, may also face charges.
“We’re investigating everyone involved in the case, including the individual who shot the video,” Reynolds said.
Those charges came more than two months after Arbery, who was unarmed, died on the residential street just outside the port city of Brunswick—and after the case was bounced to three local prosecutors before it was deferred to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“When we became involved in this case, we did what we were supposed to do,” Reynolds said of the state police agency, stating there was “more than enough sufficient probable cause” to obtain an arrest warrant for the slaying that many have described as a “lynching.”
Since the video was released on the internet Tuesday, civil-rights activists, celebrities, and politicians have pressed for charges and an investigation into the delayed action from law enforcement.
On Friday, hundreds of people gathered outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Georgia to honor Arbery, while his friends and family will hold a 2.23-mile run on what would have been his 26th birthday.
While the charges came as a “relief,” Arbery’s family has said they are upset over the delayed justice, and his sister went on CNN urging for hate-crime charges against the McMichaels.
“I believe it was a hate crime,” Jasmine Arbery said on CNN’s CuomoPrimeTime on Thursday night. “It was one black guy and three white guys. My brother was jogging.”
While Reynolds said Friday that hate-crime charges may not be possible in Georgia, he added that it’s possible federal authorities would step up and take that route.
President Donald Trump, however, made it clear Friday it is up to Georgia authorities to investigate the case and press charges.
During a Friday interview on Fox & Friends, Trump responded to the video footage of Arbery’s slaying, calling it “very, very disturbing” and offering support to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a longtime political ally.
But when asked if he could “make sure justice is done,” the president said it’s in the hands of the governor and then elaborated about what was seen (and perhaps unseen) in the footage.
“You know, it could be something that we didn’t see on tape,” Trump said. “There could be a lot of, you know if you saw things went off the tape and then back on tape. But it was troubling, I mean, to anybody that watched it certainly it was a disturbing or troubling video. No question about that.”
He added, “But they have very good law enforcement in the state of Georgia and I’m sure they are going to come up with exactly what happened. It’s a sad thing. Very sad thing. I hate to see that.”
Since the investigation began on Feb. 23, Arbery’s case has been pushed to three different jurisdictions, and two local prosecutors recused themselves from it after local prosecutors initially refused to charge the pair. Many have expressed suspicions about the handling of Arbery's case, given the McMichaels’ ties to law enforcement.
According to authorities, the father and son have long asserted they thought Arbery was a burglar responsible for a series of break-ins in their neighborhood when they pursued him in their pickup truck on Feb. 23. The GBI alleges that the McMichaels, armed with a shotgun and a .357 Magnum, confronted Arbery, who was about two miles from his home, before Travis shot him.
The entire incident was captured on video by Bryan.
Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and investigator with a local prosecutor’s office, previously told The Daily Beast he “never would have gone after someone for their color.” But according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the 64-year-old may have known Arbery before the fatal shooting.
In a letter recusing himself from the investigation, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill revealed that his son, a prosecutor in the Brunswick DA’s office, and McMichael, who was once an investigator in that same office until 2019, “both helped with the previous prosecution of Arbery.”
In high school, Arbery was sentenced to five year’s probation for carrying a weapon on campus and obstructing a law enforcement officer. He was also convicted of a probation violation in 2018 for shoplifting, the Journal-Constitution reported.
Barnhill’s letter also went on to comment on other Arbery family members’ run-ins with the law.
“This family are not strangers to the local criminal-justice system,” Barnhill wrote. “From best we can tell, Ahmaud’s older brother has gone to prison in the past and is currently in the Glynn jail, without bond, awaiting new felony prosecution. It also appears a cousin has been prosecuted by DA Johnson's office.”
Barnhill, who previously led the investigation, said in April that he did not see grounds for an arrest of the McMichaels or Bryan because they were attempting to make a citizen’s arrest. He was one of two prosecutors who looked into the case before recusing himself.
A third prosecutor—District Attorney Tom Durden—ultimately asked the GBI to step in when the case entered the national spotlight this week.
Reynolds said Friday that once his office offered its assistance on Tuesday evening, it took them 36 hours to find cause against the McMichaels, stating that there were “some things that needed to be done” in the investigation.
While he stopped short of criticizing the Waycross Judicial District Attorney’s Office for not making any arrests, Reynolds stated it “speaks volumes” that his office was able to make an arrest so quickly.
“I can tell you that if we didn’t believe it, we wouldn’t have arrested them. If we believe it, then we’re going to put the bracelets on them, and that’s exactly what we did yesterday evening,” Reynolds said.