Georgian slavery-era regulation is a key protection within the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s assassination

By Rich McKay and Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – A key defense line of the three white men on trial in Georgia for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger, is that they attempted to arrest a citizen under a Civil War-era law that It was later repealed amid a riot about the shooting.

When the fatal encounter occurred on February 23, 2020, it was legal in Georgia to arrest someone if there was “reasonable and probable suspicion” that the person had just committed a crime. The outcry over the killing led lawmakers to repeal the law in May.

Legal observers say prosecutors will try to convince the jury that there was no crime to arrest Arbery, 25, and that the three men lacked the “reasonable and probable suspicion” required by the Arrest Act for Elderly Citizens is required. The process is in the second week of jury selection.

Before Arbery’s assassination, the law had remained largely unchanged since it was codified in 1863, when Georgia was part of the slave-holding Southern Confederation during the U.S. Civil War.

Most US states have codified some kind of law that allows the arrest of citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union and others who successfully attempted to repeal the law said the state’s statute was originally passed to allow for the capture of escaped slaves.

Chris Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said laws aimed at arresting citizens put dangerous powers in the untrained hands.

“Things can get out of hand quickly,” he said.

Travis McMichael, 35, his father Gregory McMichael, 65, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, say they suspected Arbery was a burglar and chased him in two pickups as he walked down a street in mostly white Satilla Shores . a suburb of the small coastal town of Braunschweig.

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Just before he was cornered and shot, Arbery had entered an uninhabited property where a house was being built. The property owner has said nothing was taken and that Arbery, who was jogging on Sunday afternoon, probably only stopped there to drink water.

“The arrest of citizens is a big part of our case, a big part,” Kevin Gough, an attorney for Bryan, said in an interview earlier this month before the judge who led the Glynn County Supreme Court murder trial gave a partial Gag order issued.

“They changed the law, but a change in the law has no effect on us. It does not change the law of the country at that time.”

However, Arbery’s family believe the three men were suspicious of Arbery only because he was Black. In a statement to investigators, Bryan said the younger McMichael cursed Arbery using a racial slur while standing over the corpse.


Ira Robbins, a law professor at the American University in Washington, wrote in a paper that many states have broad arrest laws. For example, in California, a person can be arrested for a crime if the person has reasonable grounds to believe that it was committed.

“While recruiting citizens to fight crime is a noble idea,” wrote Robbins, tight security is required to prevent abuse of the law.

New York State has the strictest law making residents liable for false arrests if no crime has been committed, even if they had reasonable belief, “there is no room for error,” wrote Robbins.

In Georgia, the district attorney-elected who first looked at the Arbery case accepted the reasons for arresting the citizens offered by the three white men and concluded that Glynn County police said they should not be arrested.

That decision sparked outrage after May 5, when a cell phone video taped by Bryan showing the men hunting and killing Arbery was posted by a local news agency and quickly circulated online.

After the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took the case over to the police, the men were quickly arrested and charged with crimes such as wrongful imprisonment, aggravated assault, and murder, which carry the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

In repealing the law, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said Arbery was “the victim of vigilante-style violence that has no place in Georgia,” and that the statute was “ripe for abuse.”

The Georgia ACLU chapter said the old law was an example of systemic racism and empowered mobs to lynch blacks in more than 500 registered cases in Georgia between 1882 and 1968.

A new, narrower law still allows private individuals to arrest people in certain circumstances, such as when a shopkeeper catches someone shoplifting.

(Reporting by Rich McKay and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Ross Colvin and Peter Cooney)