Feds looking at Ahmaud Arbery's death as a hate crime, attorneys say

CBSNews

The U.S. Department of Justice is launching an investigation into the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Georgia as a hate crime, according to attorneys for the victim's family. Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot and killed by two white men while jogging in his neighborhood on February 23. Three arrests were made this month after video surfaced of the violent encounter.

Attorneys for Arbery's family said the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia Bobby Christine and his office will look into why Glynn County and the state of Georgia took more than two months to make an arrest and whether the region has historically violated the rights of its citizens. The U.S. Attorney said he plans to file criminal and civil charges.

William Bryan, who recorded Arbery's killing from his car, was arrested and charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. His footage showed 64-year-old Gregory McMichael and his 34-year-old son, Travis, confront Arbery before shooting him.

Gregory and Travis were both arrested May 9. Travis was charged with murder and aggravated assault, and Gregory was charged with party to murder and aggravated assault.

Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery Family Handout

On the day of the shooting, Arbery was spotted walking around an open construction site and the McMichaels pursued him in a pickup truck, according to the police report. When they passed Bryan's home, Bryan got in his own vehicle and followed, The New York Times reported.

When Arbery ran around the McMichaels' car, Bryan tried to block him, Gregory McMichael told investigators. Arbery ran past Bryan's car, too, and the two vehicles reportedly turned around and continued pursuing him. At 1:14 p.m., Bryan took the video of Travis shooting Arbery, the Times said.

McMichael told police he thought Arbery was a burglary suspect, adding that Arbery "violently" attacked his son, and the two fought "over the shotgun" before Travis shot him twice.

In an interview with CBS affiliate WJAX-TV, Bryan said he had "nothing to do" with Arbery's death. "I had nothing to do with it. I'm trying to get my life back to normal, and it's been smeared for the last week," Bryan said. "I was told I was a witness and I'm not sure what I am, other than receiving a bunch of threats."

"My client was responding to what he saw, which was someone in the community he didn't know being followed by a vehicle he recognized," Bryan's attorney told the outlet. "Without going into details about the level of crime in this community in this subdivision, I think most people in this subdivision were aware that there were issues."

Georgia among 4 states with no hate crime laws

Many have alleged Arbery was targeted because of his race, but Georgia is one of four states with no hate crime statutes, which generally allow for harsher sentencing for perpetrators of crimes ruled by a court to be bias-motivated. South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas also remain without hate crime laws, and some advocates also include Indiana on the list, calling a law passed in that state last year "uniquely and problematically broad."

Previous efforts to pass a hate crimes bill in the Georgia general assembly have faltered, but since Arbery's killing there's been a "newfound resurgence of interest in making sure Georgia gets this on the books," Georgia Representative Karen Bennett, chairwoman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, told CBS News.

HB 426, the latest proposed hate crimes bill, was introduced with bipartisan support last year and passed the state house of representatives. But the bill appeared stalled in a state Senate committee when the legislative session was suspended in March over coronavirus concerns. The Anti-Defamation League has joined a coalition of 35 advocacy groups known as Hate Free Georgia to call for HB 426 to pass; the bill would mandate enhanced sentencing for defendants convicted of targeting a victim because of their "actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origins, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability."

While states are the primary prosecutors of hate crimes, the federal government also has the authority to bring charges under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Department of Justice can act as a "backstop" to prosecute hate crimes in states without the statutes or where state laws don't cover the crime.

The Department of Justice has previously said it is reviewing the Arbery case to determine whether federal hate crime charges are appropriate. It was also weighing a request by the Attorney General of Georgia to investigate the conduct of the first two district attorneys assigned to the case. They recused themselves amid questions over their links to Gregory McMichael, a former law enforcement officer, and handling of the case.

Peter Martinez, Victoria Albert, Rodney Hawkins and Erin Donaghue contributed to this report.

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