Arbery’s legacy to live on through citizen’s arrest repeal, mother says

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp hugs Ahmaud Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, Monday after signing legislation repealing the citizen's arrest law. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Ahmaud Arbery’s mother said she’s hopeful overhauling the outdated law initially used by local prosecutors to justify her son’s killing will have a lasting impact by preventing more deaths.

Wanda Cooper-Jones’ appeared alongside Gov. Brian Kemp as he signed legislation ending a 1863 statute that empowered white people to capture runaway slaves during the Civil War.

Monday’s bill signing was another signature moment spurred by the viral video showing Arbery, who was Black, being chased down a suburban Brunswick street and shot by three white men on Feb. 23, 2020. It is the second measure passed in response to his murder, with lawmakers ushering through a hate-crimes law last summer

Cooper-Jones said she sees the law’s repeal as a birthday present for her son, who would have been 27 this month. 

Around the time of Arbery’s birthday last year, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested Greg McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, on felony murder and a host of other charges. A year later, Georgia became the first state to abolish its citizen’s arrest law. Similar bills have been introduced in two other states.

“I think the state of Georgia is moving in the right direction with the passing of this particular bill,” Cooper-Jones said. “Unfortunately, I had to lose my son to get significant change, but again, I’m still thankful.”

Kemp said the law’s repeal is a signal that the state won’t put up with the kind of vigilante-style justice that ended Arbery’s life. The Republican governor was flanked at the Capitol ceremony by a contingent of GOP and Democratic lawmakers, state prosecutors, GBI Director Vic Reynolds and others. 

“So often we spend time under the Gold Dome arguing about differences, but the outpouring of bipartisan support that this bill received, I believe, is a testament to the fundamental character of our state,” Kemp said. “Georgia has a long history in the fight for justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to leading the way in criminal justice reform to the passage of anti-hate crime legislation last year.”

Over the last year, Arbery’s death became a rallying cry as demonstrations across Georgia and the nation amplified outrage over violence against Black people.

Now, attention is turning toward a pending trial for the three men charged with Arbery’s death – the McMichaels and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, who authorities say attempted to cut off Arbery as he filmed the deadly encounter from another vehicle.

The McMichaels and Bryan face charges of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit a felony in the trial that immediately follows the jury selection process scheduled to start Oct. 18. 

The three men are also set to be arraigned Tuesday in federal court after being indicted on hate crime and attempted kidnapping charges.

Cooper-Jones’ attorney Lee Merritt said a new foundation that the family launched in Arbery’s name and the citizen’s arrest bill are important milestones, but it’s also essential to hold the McMichaels and Bryan accountable in criminal courts. The defendants have pleaded not guilty

“We always viewed this crime as a hate crime, and the subsequent charges serve as a safeguard, just in case there’s a failure at the state level,” he said.

Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said ending a law rooted in racism is a historic achievement for the state, but more work addressing racial inequality is needed.

Woodall said he’d like to see state leaders examine the disparity in how the state’s so-called stand your ground law is applied. 

The law is the centerpiece defense of a Bulloch County murder case in which a black man says he was acting in self-defense after having racial slurs yelled at him and nearly becoming a victim of road rage. 

“We’re going to look at the racial implication of ‘stand your ground’ and do all we can to ensure that it is equally accessible to all Georgians and not just people who fit the characteristics or demographics of one community,” Woodall said.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.