The prosecutor in the US state of Georgia now handling the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery spoke for the first time about the case on Friday, pledging to “make sure that we find justice” for a broken family and community.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director (GBI) Vic Reynolds also appeared alongside Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, saying that “at this point we feel confident the individuals who needed to be charged have been charged”.
Arbery, an unarmed Black man, was killed on February 23 after a white father and son armed themselves and pursued him after spotting the 25-year-old man running in their neighbourhood, a video of the incident shows. More than two months passed before authorities arrested Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault.
Holmes and Reynolds’s news conference at GBI headquarters in Decatur followed the arrest on Thursday of William “Roddie” Bryan Jr on charges of felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Bryan, 50, is the man whose cellphone video of Arbery’s shooting prompted a national outcry.
“We are going to make sure that we find justice in this case. We know that we have a broken family and a broken community down in Brunswick,” Holmes said.
Asked how Bryan could be charged with murder if he did not pull the trigger on the weapon used to kill, Reynolds referred to Bryan’s arrest warrant, which says he tried “to confine and detain” Arbery without legal authority by “utilising his vehicle on multiple occasions” before Arbery was shot.
Bryan’s lawyer, Kevin Gough, has said his client played no role in Arbery’s death, asserting that: “Roddie Bryan is not now, and has never been, more than a witness to the shooting.”
But the GBI director said on Friday that “if we believed he was a witness, we wouldn’t have arrested him”.
Under Georgia law, a felony murder charge means that a death occurred during the commission of an underlying felony and does not require intent to kill. A murder conviction in Georgia carries a minimum sentence of life in prison, either with or without parole.
Reynolds said the investigation into Arbery’s killing was still active and continuing but that he expected his investigators would finish soon and hand over the case to Holmes. He said he also expected an investigation into the handling of the case by two local prosecutors to be completed soon and turned over to the attorney general’s office.
The GBI was also working “hand in hand” with federal officials, Reynolds said. Since Georgia lacks a hate crime law, any hate crime prosecution would have to be undertaken by the US Justice Department.
Gregory McMichael told police he suspected Arbery was a burglar and that Arbery attacked his son before being shot. Bryan lives in the same subdivision, just outside the port city of Brunswick. Arbery’s mother has said she believes her son was just running in the neighbourhood.
After Bryan’s video leaked online on May 5, Governor Brian Kemp called the slaying “absolutely horrific”. The GBI took over the case from local police and the arrests of the McMichaels followed on May 7.
The Glynn County police incident report says Gregory McMichael told an officer that at one point Arbery “began running back the direction from which he came and `Roddy’ attempted to block him which was unsuccessful”. It is the only mention in the police report of any potential involvement by Bryan.
Gough did not immediately return email and text messages on Friday. He did not answer his phone and his voicemail was full. His statement on Monday said Bryan “is not a vigilante. Roddie did not participate in the horrific killing of this young man. Mr Bryan has committed no crime, and bears no criminal responsibility in the death of Ahmaud Arbery.”
Lawyers for Arbery’s parents expressed gratitude over Bryan’s arrest.
“We called for his arrest from the very beginning of this process,” lawyers S Lee Merritt, Benjamin Crump and L Chris Stewart said in a statement. “His involvement in the murder of Mr Arbery was obvious to us, to many around the country and after their thorough investigation, it was clear to the GBI as well.”
Gregory McMichael retired last year after more than two decades as an investigator for the local prosecutor’s office. Because of those ties, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself. Two other outside prosecutors stepped aside in succession before Holmes was appointed.
Now Bryan is behind bars along with the McMichaels in the Glynn County jail. A judge has yet to decide whether to free them on bond pending trial. Attorneys for the father and son have urged people not to rush to judgement.