Arbery verdict rebuffs White vigilantism as a defense to lynch Black bodies

OPINION: The defendants claimed self-defense, but unlike the movies, you can’t be the superhero and villain at the same time.

Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory, and a third man, William “Roddie” Bryan, are all charged with one count of interference with civil rights and attempted kidnapping (Photo: Glynn County Detention Center)

Remember when you rooted for the vigilante? I can think of countless movies, books where I wanted the vigilante to prevail – Batman, The Avengers, The Law Abiding Citizen. But what happens when the Vigilante is actually the villain?

On Feb. 23, 2020, Travis McMichael (35), his father Gregory McMichael (65) and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan (52) hunted down and murdered Ahmaud Arbery for jogging in their neighborhood while being Black. The McMichael’s and Bryan claimed because of an uptick of “rampant crime” in their neighborhood, they attempted to effectuate a citizen’s arrest, a Georgia law that has since been repealed because of Ahmaud’s killing. In their failed attempt at citizen’s arrest, they killed Ahmaud and conveniently claimed self-defense. 

Self-defense is procedural vehicle used in a great deal of cases involving the killing of Black individuals – but the claim of self-defense can be tricky. In murder cases where self-defense is raised, the defendant essentially acknowledges the killing and the fact that the defendant played a role in the death of that individual. What is key in all self-defense cases is that the defendant must not be the aggressor, you cannot provoke the attack and cannot be committed in conjunction with a felony or attempted felony.

Ahmaud Arbery
A demonstrator holds a sign at the Glynn County Courthouse as jury selection begins in the trial of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery on Oct. 18, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Once the claim of self-defense is raised by the defendant, he or she is under no obligation to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing was not in self-defense and therefore unjustified. 

When raising the claim of self-defense, the defendant must be in reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm. “Reasonable fear” and “imminent” are important elements which must be met in order for the claim of self-defense to be justified. Would a person standing in the defendant’s shoes be in reasonable fear of receiving great bodily harm? Was the perceived threat of bodily harm likely to happen or about to happen?

Unlike the movies, you can’t be the superhero and villain at the same time – it doesn’t work that way.

Many questioned how could the defendants claim self-defense? It’s like a vicious cycle – White man kills Black individual and then feign innocence and claim self-defense. Think of Jordan Davis who was killed for being in a car with loud music. In that case, defendant Michael Dunn claimed Florida’s “stand your ground” law as self-defense. George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin and claimed self-defense. The glaring theme in all these cases is a sense of entitlement and White vigilantism. 

Jordan Davis and Ahmaud Arbery
Left to right: Jordan Davis and Ahmaud Arbery. (Photo: Families of Jordan Davis and Ahmaud Arbery)

The defendants in this case claimed self-defense after being charged with malice murder which carries life imprisonment, 4 counts of felony murder, 2 counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal intent to commit a Felony. Under the felony murder doctrine, if an individual is killed while committing a felony the defendant can be found guilty of murder. The felony murder doctrine can be quite controversial as individuals have been convicted of murder for selling drugs to an individual and found guilty of murder as a result of the individual overdosing.

In this case, the McMichael’s and Bryan were found guilty under the felony murder doctrine because they committed the felonies of aggravated assault with a firearm, false imprisonment and aggravated assault with a vehicle which resulted in the death of Ahmaud Arbery. Think about it this way — but for the McMichael’s and Bryan hopping into their vehicles and hunting down Ahmaud while he was jogging in “their” neighborhood would he have died? By finding the defendants guilty, the jury answered the question we knew the answer to – a resounding no.

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski executed her cross examination flawlessly and decimated the defense’s argument of self-defense by demonstrating Ahmaud was not a threat. Ms. Dunikoski asked Travis whether Ahmaud reached into his pockets; if Ahmaud threatened or brandished any weapons, guns knives – to which Travis McMichael’s responded, no he just ran. 

Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski is applauded while addressing members of the media outside the Glynn County Courthouse after guilty verdicts were announced for the defendants in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery on November 24, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

How dare Ahmaud not stop when commanded by three White men driving erratically in their trucks with a shot gun. The audacity of claiming self-defense after chasing Ahmaud Arbery in their trucks is a commonality that is used far too often in this White vigilante style of killing of Black bodies. 

This defense theory of White vigilantism is a new attempt to be absolved in the lynching of Black bodies. The attempts by the defense to demoralize the court by seeking a mistrial on eight occasions because Black pastors sat in the court room in support of the Arbery’s; the attempt to disparage Ahmaud Arbery by raising the fact that he had long dirty toenails during closing arguments; the unmitigated gall to hunt someone down then claim self-defense after killing him is in fact the antithesis of the neighborhood vigilantes we have to come to love.

They tried to be your neighborhood spiderman but spun their web of lies and got caught in it.

Stephanie Willis

Stephanie is an Attorney and Policy Strategist focusing on reforming the Criminal Legal System. Stephanie was an anchor on the Law and Crime Network and has provided legal analysis for Fox News.

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