The defendants have pleaded not guilty to murder, and their lawyers argue race played no role — that they pursued Arbery in the belief he was behind neighborhood break-ins. But prosecutors have portrayed the men as racist, pointing to texts and social media posts in court. Bryan, who filmed the fatal confrontation on his phone, told investigators that Travis McMichael used the n-word after shooting Arbery, a claim the younger McMichael’s lawyers denied.
The newly announced charges came as officials around the county turn to hate-crime laws as a tool against allegations of bigoted attacks. The Justice Department has also emphasized its attention to civil rights protections and to high-profile killings of Black Americans that ignited protests over the past year.
Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer representing the Arbery family, hailed the federal indictment as “yet another step in the right direction” in a fight to hold people accountable for Arbery’s death.
“This is an important milestone in America’s uphill march toward racial justice, and we applaud the Justice Department for treating this heinous act for what it is — a purely evil, racially motivated hate crime,” Crump said in a statement.
Authorities’ handling of Arbery’s killing came under intense scrutiny last year, raising familiar concerns about unequal treatment of Black Americans by police and prosecutors. A district attorney advised police that there were no grounds to arrest anyone over Arbery’s death, and even as he later recused himself, he offered a final defense of the men now charged. Georgia law protected their right to perform a “citizen’s arrest,” and then use deadly force in self-defense after Arbery “initiated the fight,” Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill wrote last spring.
But widely circulated cellphone footage created pressure to bring criminal consequences. The video, provided to law enforcement shortly after the incident, shows Arbery jogging past the McMichaels and their truck, then struggling with Travis before being shot. Authorities said Arbery was unarmed.
Wednesday’s indictment accuses the defendants of using “force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.” The indictment says the McMichaels cut off Arbery’s route and threatened him with firearms in a chase that Bryan eventually joined, using his truck to block Arbery’s path as well. It also alleges that all of the defendants sought to unlawfully trap Arbery and that the McMichaels brandished firearms, with Travis McMichael firing his shotgun.
A lawyer for Travis McMichael, Bob Rubin, criticized the federal charges in a brief phone call with The Washington Post.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Justice Department bought the false narrative that the media and state prosecutors have promulgated,” he said, adding that the indictment does not explain the hate-crime allegations and ignores Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law.
Arbery’s case spurred a successful push for a law specifically targeting hate crimes in Georgia, one of the last states to pass such a measure. It also ignited debate over the state’s law allowing citizens to arrest each other, and legislators repealed it this year with some narrow exceptions, in a push for reform supported by Gov. Brian Kemp (R).
Frank Hogue, an attorney for Gregory McMichael, said that Arbery’s race was “incidental” and that the defendants chased Arbery because of their suspicions that he committed burglaries, after seeing him at an under-construction house and hearing about thefts.
Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, also expressed disappointment at the Justice Department’s decision to prosecute his client, saying Bryan has committed no crime.
Officials said they found no stolen items on Arbery, and surveillance video does not show him taking anything at the construction site. He was just jogging, Arbery’s family said.
The case was investigated by the FBI as well as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and is being prosecuted in the Southern District of Georgia, the Justice Department said in a Wednesday news release. A date has not been set for the state trial against the defendants.
The Justice Department’s focus on hate crimes under the Biden administration marks a significant departure from that of the Trump presidency, when federal prosecutions of hate crimes were rare, according to data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse program.
In his first executive memo to staff in March, Attorney General Merrick Garland looked to improve data collection and bolster investigations and prosecutions of alleged hate crimes in the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings that killed eight, including six women of Asian descent.
The department’s crackdown has also focused on the use of force by local law enforcement. The department recently announced that it will investigate Louisville police after the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor as well as Minneapolis police in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Under President Donald Trump, federal authority to examine police departments was cut back.
At the federal level, hate-crime laws cover attacks motivated by perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. In addition, most states have hate-crime laws, but they vary by the groups they protect. Most include crimes committed on the basis of race, color and religion.
The day before the Georgia men were charged related to killing Arbery, two California men were indicted in a hate-crimes case for allegedly attacking people in a family-owned Turkish restaurant in November 2020, according to the Justice Department.