The initial details released by law enforcement were sparse. Police declined to comment further about the shooting that claimed the life of Ahmaud Arbery as the three white men responsible remained free for more than two months after. And it was a local story, one that enveloped and shook a coastal Georgia community, before it received widespread national attention and sparked an outcry.
In parallels to other cases that have played out in the public arena and in courts, it was a cellphone video that both elevated understanding of what occurred and at last spurred investigators to arrest those involved: Travis McMichael, 35, his father Greg McMichael, 65, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52.
All three were convicted of murder and other charges on Wednesday in the killing of Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man who was on a jog in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020, when the men pursued him and Travis McMichael gunned him down in the streets that Sunday afternoon.
The nearly all-white jury deliberated for only two days before the verdicts were read. Now the men face a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution deemed it “one of the most polarizing cases” in the state in decades. But that outcome may not have been possible without a video of the murder being leaked online in May 2020.
“I’m not sure we’d be here at all,” attorney Gene Nichols, who is not affiliated with the case, told News4Jax. “If there had been no video, and we have the combination of a prosecutor who is now subsequently under indictment for trying to keep this quiet, I’m not sure that we would be where we are today.”
The first two district attorneys to review the case — both of whom had personal connections to the McMichael family — did not bring charges and ultimately recused themselves. It was only after the shaky footage filmed by Bryan from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck — which shows the men cornering Arbery and Travis McMichael shooting him — was released publicly by radio station WGIG that attention exploded to the case.
The video was leaked by local attorney Alan Tucker, who had reportedly consulted with the men but did not end up representing them. Tucker said he wanted to clear up rumors about the case, according to The New York Times. But the video did just the opposite as it quickly circulated across the globe, raising questions about racial profiling, vigilantism, and why the men had yet to be charged in the killing.
Republican Governor Brian Kemp called the video “absolutely horrific,” while Joe Biden, running for president at the time, said it amounted to a lynching “before our very eyes.” Both demanded an investigation, and soon after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took up the case. The men were arrested shortly afterward.
The video was released during a summer when protesters worldwide participated in marches and demonstrations to call for action against police brutality and systemic racism — seeking justice many felt had long been denied. Their rallying cries for action were largely driven by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Arbery.
“I don’t want to be a spoilsport, but what if that video had not come out several months later?” Michael Irvin, a teacher from Florida, told NBC News outside the courthouse. “A young Black man would have been taken from his family and community with no one held responsible. That part, I can’t ignore. So, I’m happy justice was served.”
The absence of clear answers from officials on how the events played out immediately raised red flags for Larry Hobbs, a journalist with Brunswick News who was the first to follow the story and shine a light on how Arbery died. Instead of relying on statements, Hobbs filed a public records request and kept pushing for more disclosure, ultimately obtaining a police report that opened the case up. But prosecutors, like law enforcement, were not forthcoming.
Jackie Johnson, the Brunswick district attorney who lost her bid for re-election last November and was indicted this past September for alleged misconduct in the aftermath of the shooting, gave the case to Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Barnhill ultimately recused himself from the case because of his connections to the McMichael family, but he issued a statement declaring their innocence as he passed on the case, a move that drew condemnation from other attorneys.
Hobbs did not let go of his investigation — even after national media swooped in and brought further exposure to the shooting. He opened his story on the convictions with three simple words: “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.”
“On so many occasions, this strange and exotic and beautiful place called the South that I love so much has come up wanting in times of reckoning,” Hobbs wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. “Today, Nov. 24, 2021, in a town called Brunswick on the Georgia Coast, was not such an occasion.”
For observers nationwide and the family of Arbery, it was an outcome long overdue.
“I finally got justice for Ahmaud,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, told WSBTV Channel 2 after the verdicts were read. Father Marcus Arbery added: “We conquered that lynch mob. This is history today.”