Georgia state overhauls citizen arrest law following Ahmaud Arbery's death

01 April 2021 - 09:29 By Reuters
A portrait of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed young Black man shot and killed after being chased by a white former law enforcement officer and his son, is pictured during a candle light vigil to mark the one year anniversary of his death, at New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Georgia, US February 23, 2021.
A portrait of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed young Black man shot and killed after being chased by a white former law enforcement officer and his son, is pictured during a candle light vigil to mark the one year anniversary of his death, at New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Georgia, US February 23, 2021.
Image: REUTERS/Dustin Chambers / File photo

Georgia overhauled a Civil War-era law Wednesday that allowed residents to arrest anyone they suspected of committing a crime — a “citizens arrest” law invoked by the defence of the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery last year.

The Arbery case garnered international outrage with civil rights activists saying it marked yet another example of a targeted attack on Black man.

The Georgia General Assembly approved the bill across party lines by wide margins in both the House and Senate, and now it is headed to Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who has said he will sign it.

“Ahmaud was the victim of vigilante-style violence that has no place in Georgia,” Kemp told the media.

Kemp said in a release the bill repealed “Civil War-era language in our laws that is ripe for abuse.”

Republican Representative Bert Reeves, the primary sponsor of the bill, said the bill was a “common sense move that should have been done a long time ago. It achieves meaningful reform to prevent vigilantism.”

The citizens arrest law came under scrutiny after the February 2020 death of Arbery, 25, who was chased down and shot dead as he jogged through his South Georgia neighbourhood. The shooting was caught on cellphone video that went viral.

In the 1863 law, Georgia allowed any resident to arrest someone they suspect committed a crime, a law critics say was enacted to detain people suspected of being runaway slaves.

Prosecutors initially did not charge the three white men, citing the citizens arrest law as the reason, as all three said they believed that Arbery was a burglar.

A former Glynn County police officer, Gregory McMichael, and his son Travis, were charged with murder and aggravated assault, but only after state authorities stepped in about two months after the shooting.

A third man, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the McMichaels in chasing down Arbery, police say, and shot the video of the incident on his phone.

Attorneys for the McMichaels did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Bryan's attorney, Kevin Gough, said that the citizens arrest law was one of the foundations of the defence for all three accused and that the General Assembly's new measure did not change what was the law last year.

Gerald Griggs, the vice-president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, said the law needed to be abolished.

“It allowed people to just go play police officer and when they don't know what they're doing,” Griggs said. “It was deadly in brother Ahmaud's case.”

No trial date has yet been set for the three.  


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