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What We Learned From the Ahmaud Arbery Trial

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Last week, a jury in Georgia returned guilty verdicts for the three white men who chased and killed 25-year-old unarmed Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020, while he was out for a jog.

Outside the Glynn County Courthouse, the crowd erupted in cheers as the verdicts were announced Wednesday. Breaths of relief could be heard across the country. What did we learn?

In America, justice is neither blind nor fair

Ahmaud Arbery’s murder almost went unnoticed in a historically racist country going through its worst public health crisis of the century. Thanks to the leaked video of the February 2020 shooting, Arbery’s death quickly became yet another example of racial injustice in the country, fueled by the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The culprits, Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and his neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, now face a mandatory life sentence.

As recounted by the Associated Press, the McMichael’s grabbed guns and jumped into a pickup truck to chase Arbery, 25, after spotting him running outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick. Bryan joined the chase in his pickup truck and recorded with his cell phone the moment Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery.

What would seem to be a “two+plus+two” argument in American justice has many intricacies. One need only look at the jury verdict in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old who fatally shot two people during last year’s riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The young white man was acquitted of all charges last November 19 in a criminal trial that seemed to convince us of the failure of the judicial system in the country.

As Washington Post columnist Radley Balko explains, the jury’s verdict was correct as a matter of law in both cases, but neither case was remotely typical. In fact, there is little that either can teach us about how the system actually works on a day-to-day basis.

Getting to trial is a privilege of the few

Balko explains that only a very small percentage of criminal cases in the United States goes before a jury. “Most defendants, including the innocent, are pressured to accept a plea bargain,” Balko added.

It’s not just about unclogging the backlog of cases handled by each judge but also about avoiding setting precedents.

According to Bruce A. Green, director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics, and Dennis Aftergut, former federal prosecutor, this reality of the judicial system is so evident that the successful prosecution of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers this month almost didn’t happen, they wrote in an article for NBC Think.

Both explain how the September indictment of Jacqueline Johnson, former prosecutor for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit in Georgia, for attempting behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the case highlights the weight of closed-door prosecutions and plea deals.

Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr initiated the charges against Johnson, who is alleged to have tried to use her influence to protect Arbery’s killers from arrest and prosecution. Understandably, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said the indictment was “a very huge win” for accountability.

Ignoring race as a strategy to win a lawsuit

Finally, and perhaps the saddest conclusion of the Ahmaud Arbery trial, is that the effective strategy of the prosecutor in the case, Linda Dunikoski, which ultimately brought justice to Arbery and his family, was to ignore race during the trial.

As David Leonhardt explains in his column for the New York Times, Dunikoski accused the defendants of having a racist motive only once, in a single line of her closing argument. Instead, she portrayed them as lawless figures who killed a young man.

Before the verdicts, some observers criticized the strategy, saying that Dunikoski was weakening her case by ignoring the defendants’ motive. “There were a lot of people who thought that it should have been very central to her argument,” said The Times’s Richard Fausset, who covered the killing and the trial. One law professor accused Dunikoski of “whitewashing” the facts. Another professor said that her strategy would be blamed if the defendants were acquitted.

Although the prosecutor has not publicly discussed her strategy, Dunikoski was deliberately omitting a large part of the story. The fact is, in American justice, emphasizing race is a gift to those who use it as an argument for violence.