Arbery killing evokes memories of Trayvon Martin, says attorney in both cases

Marquise Francis
National Reporter & Producer

Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin would both be 26 years old if they were alive today. But the two young men never saw their 26th birthdays. The opportunity was taken from them. Arbery was shot to death in February while jogging down a residential street in Brunswick, Ga. Martin was 17 in February 2012 when he was fatally shot by a neighborhood-watch coordinator as he walked home in Sanford, Fla. Eight years after Martin’s killing, attorney Benjamin Crump, the long-time civil rights lawyer who represented the family of the teen and who now represents the family of Arbery, calls the similarities in the two cases remarkable.

“The similarities between the killing of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery and what happened in the aftermath are just eerie,” Crump said in an interview with Yahoo News. “When you think about Trayvon Martin in 2012, it took weeks of great public outcry before there was an arrest. When you think of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, it was weeks without an arrest until you had great public outcry.”

Crump notes that Arbery and Martin were both young and black and passing through white neighborhoods; neither was armed, and both were pursued by vigilantes who shot them during a struggle. And both became litmus tests for attitudes about racial justice. Martin was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and an autopsy disclosed he had marijuana in his bloodstream, facts that became twisted into evidence he was “up to no good,” as the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, said in a call to 911. Arbery was praised by President Trump as looking “like a really good young guy” in a photograph that showed him dressed in a tuxedo, but detractors cite his 2017 arrest for shoplifting, and subsequent guilty plea, to tarnish his character. The men who accosted him, Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis, suspected him of burglaries in the neighborhood, but no evidence has surfaced in public to support that. He was seen in footage from a security camera at a nearby house under construction, but nothing was reported stolen; it is speculated that he went inside for water during his jog.

The other similarity was the delay in the prosecution of the killers, who in both cases were white and had ties to local law enforcement. Gregory McMichael was a former Glynn County police officer. Zimmerman was the son of a local magistrate judge. In both cases, it took outside authority stepping in before arrests were made.

“When you think of Trayvon Martin in 2012, it was not until the state police, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement took over the investigation that you finally got an arrest,” Crump said. “It wasn't until the Georgia State Police got involved in the Ahmaud Arbery case, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, when you finally got an arrest.”

Ultimately, Zimmerman, who mounted a “stand your ground” defense, was acquitted of murder in Martin’s case, a devastating blow to Martin’s family and supporters, including Crump. But Crump — who also represented the family of Michael Brown, the teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 — says there is a lot to learn from that case that he can apply to Arbery’s case.

“We have to stay vigilant on making sure the prosecutors zealously prosecute the killers of an unarmed black person,” Crump said. “We cannot take for granted that they're going to be as zealous in their prosecution of the killers of these young men as they would if the roles were reversed. And that is the great lesson that we have to give them all the supporting resources and documents.”

Crump brought a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of Martin’s parents against the homeowners association in the development where Zimmerman lived and volunteered as a watch captain; the suit was settled in 2013 for an undisclosed amount. He said he intends to pursue a similar action on behalf of Arbery’s family, and that prosecutors need to do their part in holding white people accountable for killing black people.

The prosecutor in the McMichaels’ case — the fourth to handle the case after three others were recused or dismissed — is Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, a black woman. Crump says he is “cautiously optimistic” that she will ensure justice, which he believes was denied to Martin.

“We want to believe that she understands the life experiences and the struggles that African Americans encounter every day,” Crump said. “We want this black woman to think of Ahmaud as somebody who could have been her child. And I think in other cases where you had white prosecutors, I don’t think they could envision what happened to Ahmaud could happen to their child.”

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