The effort to diminish shooting victim Ahmaud Arbery began almost from the start, says an attorney for his family.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was falsely told that her 25-year-old son was killed by a homeowner while committing a burglary, according to the attorney, S. Lee Merritt.
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A district attorney who viewed a video of the black jogger chased down by two armed white men in a pickup truck then wrote that Arbery “initiated the fight,” concluding, “Arbery’s mental health records & prior convictions help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man.”
That same district attorney, George Barnhill, wrote in a separate analysis: “The family are not strangers to the local criminal justice system. From best we can tell, Ahmaud’s older brother has gone to prison in the past…It also appears a cousin has been prosecuted by DA Johnson’s office.”
Ahmaud Arbery and his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones
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But none of that justified Arbery’s shooting, Merritt tells PEOPLE — and recently released cell-phone video of the Feb. 23 incident sparked national outrage, leading to the arrests of the two alleged suspects shown in the clip: Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34,
“The root of Ahmaud’s murder goes back to the criminalization of blackness,” Merritt says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “This was a lynching.”
Now the two men — who are father and son — sit in jail in Glynn County, Georgia, charged with murder and aggravated assault. They have not entered a plea, and an attorney has not been publicly named.
Travis, at left, and Gregory McMichael
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Their arrest came on the second day after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation entered the case. Two local prosecutors — including Barnhill — earlier had taken a pass on the case after conflict-of-interest concerns were raised, and a third prosecutor said he would hold off judgment until a grand jury could convene later this summer.
The case has since been given to a fourth prosecutor named by the state Attorney General’s Office, which also has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate how local officials responded. (Barnhill, the second prosecutor on the case, had concluded, “there is insufficient probable cause to issue arrest warrants at this time.”)
The video is “extremely upsetting,” GBI Director Vic Reynolds said at a news conference. “On a human level, it’s troubling.”
“I can’t answer what another agency did or didn’t see,” he said in response to a question about the 10-week delay in arrests. “But I can tell you that based on our involvement in this case, and considering that we hit the ground running … and within 36 hours had secured warrants for two individuals for felony murder, I think that speaks volumes.”
For Merritt, the delay spoke to other truths about how local law enforcement tried to dismiss Arbery after Gregory McMichael allegedly first told police he pursued the victim because he believed Arbery resembled a burglary suspect.
“They went into a deep dive of the victim and they pulled up everything that could be used to diminish his character, although it had nothing to do with the facts of the case,” Merritt says. “And we see that over and over and over again in the American criminal justice system.”
“There is a race problem embedded deeply inside the American criminal justice system that this case has exposed,” he says.