by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier
The Red & Black is an independent newspaper operating out of The University of Georgia. In 2013 a Red & Black article featured The University of Georgia’s police chief. The topic was how to make a “citizen’s arrest.” The police chief explained citizens can make an arrest if they witnessed the crime in progress, but the police chief was against the practice. He called “citizen’s arrest” ill-advised and emphasized all arrests should be left to law enforcement professionals. The police chief warned if a person incorrectly made a citizen’s arrest, through excessive force or improper detainment, the arresting party could face criminal charges.
A shooting in Georgia captured the attention of the national media after cell phone footage of the February incident became public last week.
Ahmaud Arbery, 25, an African American male, was jogging through a neighborhood. Arbery ran past Greg McMichael, 64, who was in his front yard. McMichael thought the jogger fit the description of the suspect in a string of neighborhood burglaries. McMichael told his son, Travis, 34, and the two men armed themselves with a revolver and a shotgun. The father and son got into a truck, pursued the jogger, caught up to the jogger, and jumped out with their weapons. There was a struggle over the shotgun, two shots were fired, and Arbery was dead.
The father and son were charged with murder and aggravated assault on May 7. But the shooting death of Arbery happened three months ago on Feb. 23. What prevented the father and son from being arrested and charged with murder sooner? Two things; professional relationships and the concept of a “citizen’s arrest” being used to cover up vigilantism. (Law enforcement undertaken without legal authority by a self-appointed group of people.)
Greg McMichael was a former police officer and a retired investigator for the District Attorney’s office. When police officers arrived on the scene of the shooting in February, the police officers believed they had probable cause to arrest McMichael and his son. But the DA’s office told the police officers to stand down. The DA’s office knew the suspects and thought highly of them. The DA’s office informed the police department that Greg McMichael acted within the scope of Georgia’s “citizen’s arrest” statue, and Travis McMichael, who had the shotgun, acted out of self-defense. Prosecutor George E. Barnhill went further. He told the police department that Arbery had a criminal record, Arbery was convicted of shoplifting and of violating probation in 2018, and Arbery was indicted on charges that he took a handgun to a high school basketball game. Barnhill didn’t just defame the character of the victim. Barnhill justified McMichael’s suspicion in order to advance the theory that McMichael was going to make a “citizen’s arrest.”
Michael J. Moore, a lawyer who formerly served as a U.S. attorney in Georgia, said Barnhill’s statements were flawed. Moore said the McMichaels were the aggressors in the confrontation, and, “The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime.”
Barnhill recused himself from the case last month.
Barnhill wrote in an official letter, “Since we were initially requested to handle the case the victim’s mother has clearly expressed, she wants myself and my office off the case. She sees a conflict in that my son works in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office where Greg McMichael retired some time ago. She believes there are kinships between the parties (there are not) and has made other unfounded allegations of bias.”
Arbery’s mother was right to complain about a conflict of interest, but she also should have accused Barnhill of obstructing justice.
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