The Ahmaud Arbery murder verdict

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In February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man was shot to death while jogging in the neighborhood. The three men eventually arrested claimed that Arbery was the subject of a “citizen’s arrest” because he had been seen in a house under construction, which was “suspicious.” The so-called Citizen’s Arrest statute in Georgia has since been repealed.

A video showed that Mr. Arbery was chased down by three white men in pick-up trucks and that they cornered Arbery. The men claimed that Arbery, who was unarmed, was shot in self-defense. Originally, the prosecutor, who apparently did not know about the video, declined to bring charges. And there it likely would have ended until a video, taken by one of the suspects, surfaced. Another prosecutor took the case and vigorously fought for convictions.

A few days ago, after ten hours of deliberation, the jury returned multiple guilty verdicts. They concluded that the three men murdered a young man who was minding his own business and was chased down, cornered, and shot-gunned to death. The verdict should have not been a surprise to anyone who closely followed the case.

It is very possible that Arbery had stopped out of curiosity to look at a house under construction. I have done the very same thing on numerous occasions. If the men were concerned, they could have called 911. There was no evidence that Arbery had taken anything from the house.

The jury consisted of eleven white jurors and one black juror. An online article by CBS News stated that prosecutors objected to the jury being almost all white, saying that the defense attorneys deliberately tried to excuse blacks from the jury. The judge agreed that “intentional discrimination” by defense attorneys appeared to have shaped jury selection but said his authority to intervene was limited under Georgia law.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The jury convicted the three men on a total of 23 counts, ranging from malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, to criminal intent to commit a felony.

What was a bit of a surprise, to me at least, was how many experts outside the state of Georgia were shocked to find that a jury of 11 whites and 1 black would convict three white men who murdered a young Black man in cold blood.

If it were the 1850s, I could understand the disbelief. If it were even the 1950s, I could understand the skepticism.

I was born in 1951 and grew up in a then-segregated society in upper east Tennessee. There were “colored water fountains,” “colored” entrances to both movie theaters, the back of the bus was reserved for Black riders, the American Legion swimming pool was a public pool as long as you were white, and the local eatery at the five and dime store served whites only. The school system was segregated, as were churches, and as was housing. At the July 4th parades, there were as many Confederate flags as American flags.

That all began to change in the 1960s and, in 1966, I entered an integrated Dobyns-Bennett High School. I’ve told folks that I have lived the movie, “Remember the Titans,” except that we did not have near the violence and racism depicted in the movie.

In August, I and other football players reported for football practice. Also present were the players and a coach from Douglass High School. Coach Tom Brixey, who had won a state championship in 1964 and had an undefeated season in 1965, made things clear at that first practice in 1966.

Looking over the assembled athletes, he said, “I see two colors in this room … maroon and gray,” which were the school colors. “Anybody see any other color, you can leave now and not come back.” We understood. We were, from that moment, one tribe — the Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett Indians.

It didn’t take long for the “colored” signs to disappear and for people to sit, eat, swim, and begin to attend church where they wanted. It took a bit longer for people to live where they liked and could afford, but that discrimination fell away as well. The Confederate flags all but disappeared from public display. It wasn’t the modern era just yet, but it was a far cry from just a decade earlier. Some areas in the South took longer, but the progress was inevitable.

So, in 2021, no one that I knew was surprised by the Arbery verdict, although I do understand the skepticism of Blacks who have a long history of being treated unfairly. My friends, family, and I would have been shocked if the verdict had been otherwise. But, sadly, in some parts of the country, many folks apparently believe that Georgia still lives in the 1850s or, at least, in the 195’s. It is not that we don’t have a way to go, but so do other parts of the nation. We are always a people in progress.

Over the years, I have met folks from other regions who make assumptions about the South that are just plain wrong. Many of those people have never spent any time here or they come with such biased preconceptions as to render themselves blind. We are not bristling with racists, our police agencies are not like some police departments of 70 years ago that were infested with Klan members, and we don’t want to return to the 1950s.

In the county where I live, we did have a few Klansmen and neo-Nazis, along with a few Antifa thugs, show up for a rally in 2018, but the two dozen people were met with overwhelming police presence estimated at 700 officers and by local citizens, of all races, who made it clear they were not welcome here. There are still Southern traditions and Southern cultures, but every region and race have traditions, cultures, and subcultures.

If you were surprised that 11 whites and a black person in Georgia could convict three white men of a senseless murder of a young black man just out for a jog, then you just may need to get your head out of the 1950s. I have been a Southerner for nearly all my life and I can truthfully say that this is NOT the South I grew up in. And I for one am grateful and proud that it is not.

No, we are not “one tribe” just yet, but we are farther along than we have ever been.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemic, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

19 COMMENTS

  1. Father Epps–
    I realize this comes late in the discussion.

    I listened to a very moving piece on NPR Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. He was interviewing Capitol Police Officer, Harry
    Dunn.

    Officer Dunn told how he and a fellow black officer, sitting side-by-side in the rotunda, shared the racial slurs they had endured while defending the capitol on Jan 6th.

    “How the (BLANK) could something like this happen?
    Is this America?” they asked, in the immediate aftermath.

    This morning, Officer Dunn states–

    “I was able to answer it–Is this America?
    It IS. It is a part of America.
    And it’s irresponsible for us to act like this does not exist.”

    Politics aside, I ask you again not be so quick to congratulate yourself on overcoming racism and bigotry.

    Sadly, it seems to me we’ve barely made a start.

  2. I wish we all lived in the USA Fr Epps seems to live in. It seems like a beautiful place where, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, our society became just and equitable for all people of all races and genders.

    In his beta-USA, I guess, Black people aren’t 5X more likely to be stopped without just cause by police than white people and 3x as likely to die at the hands of the police than white people. In beta-America, instead of 1 out of every 3 black males sentenced to jail at some point (as they are here, in the real America), only 1 out of 17 will go to jail, which is the comparative statistic for white males in the USA.

    I can only imagine that in Epps’ beta-America the infant mortality rate for African Americans isn’t double the infant mortality rate for white people (as it is here in the real world). And probably in that fantasy land, African Americans don’t have the highest mortality rates for all cancers combined, as they do here in the real world. And probably in beta-America, typical white families don’t have 5X the wealth of typical Black families.

    Wouldn’t it be great to live in that fantasy where equality is a real thing, and it’s not surprising at all when a crime against a Black person is actually prosecuted, and the jury makes the right decision? I mean … it did happen in this one case, but only over the objections and collusion of local criminal justice officials. The prosecution had to fight to bring the case to trial, and had to tiptoe around the obvious racial motivations of the crime so as not to scare off any white jurors from doing the right thing by making them feel implicated in systemic (or overt) racism.

    For God’s sake, Epps, get your head out of your pretend USA and try to take an honest look at the real one. Suz’s comments are right on target: we were all just holding our breath praying the verdict would be just. It was not a guarantee, as the Kyle Rittenhous verdict clearly showed us. I am praying we will make it to Epps’ fantasy America one of these days, but we aren’t there yet.

    • Dear VJax–
      Thank you so much for your research and acumen.
      Also for taking the time to post the information.

      I realize I have a tendency to “shoot from the heart”.
      That is, my opinions are largely formed by what I see and hear and experience.

      A lifetime listening to friends and co-workers (largely in the hospitality field) has convinced me that as a white, middle-class,
      straight, Christian…the deck is stacked in my favor.

      My heart tells me we have a long way to go.

      And so do the facts you present.

  3. Father Epps–
    Please don’t tell me you were confident of a guilty verdict in the trial of Ahmaud Arbery. Worse yet, please don’t pat us on the back for how far we have come.

    Who did not heave a sigh of relief at the outcome?
    It has become self-evident that the legal system does not always work with equity. I would say “rarely”.

    Not every family has to struggle for every inch in an attempt to secure justice. Not all law enforcement personnel perform their job impartially. This, the Arbery family and their advocates faced, throughout.

    The fact that ONE black family persevered and received a just verdict should not cause our society surprised relief. We should routinely expect and accept nothing less. In every case.

    Hasten the day when fair and equal treatment under the law is no longer a novelty worthy of a column. Rather a right extended to all.

      • Hello, Spyglass–
        “Either our system works or not.”

        I don’t think it is that simple.

        It often works, but not with equity.
        The most obvious are the system working,
        but differently and unfairly, toward people of color (rather than white people) and the poor (rather than the wealthy).

      • And then on the flipside Spyglass, there’s facts and evidence known to the court (judge & attorneys), as well as to the general public, that’s held back in presentation to the jury. So basically, the jury doesn’t hear everything associated with the case and therefore has to render a decision based solely upon what’s been admitted into testimony in court.

  4. I’m curious the reasoning Rev. Epps chose this topic and the one last week? Didn’t we just live through this? We’ve heard every conceivable hot-take on the subjects. Why the need for regurgitation? Obviously, he can write about anything he wants, but this is just another rehash of what we already know. It seems forced – as if there is nothing else to talk about. I know it must be difficult to come up with different topics each week, but it’s okay if you don’t have much to say on. Maybe just a short note to express the good things that are happening in your life or good things you have witnessed recently. Just a thought.

  5. I would have wholeheartedly agreed with Rev. Epps had this been written before 2016. The South made great strides in respecting civil rights up until that time.

    Since then, many Caucasians in our region have regressed, following the dictate to Make America Great (read White) Again. I hope this ethnocentricity is a short bleep on the screen that will dissolve in a few years, but my experience with the South makes me fear that it may linger.

    I hope for restored sanity as well as good will in all of these United States.

    • Good point Jack about Mr. “No Charges Were Warranted” Barnhill the Waycross DA who took over the case from Robinson (Brunswick DA) who was indicted by a grand jury in Sept ‘21. The GBI investigation continues into the morally flexible Barnhill’s actions / non-actions.

  6. Yet the crime in of itself was very reminiscent of those yesteryear citizen apprehensions or unlawful seizures that had “gone wrong just a bit” and why there was such a strong national outrage once the video surfaced. Yes, the Georgia law allowing for citizen’s arrest that dated back to the Civil War-era was ripe for abuse … but it was only recently repealed after Arbery’s death. It took too many years (and finally a video) to address this “type” of heinous crime and now we await the outcome of the federal trial – which is another step in the right direction.

  7. Doon,
    Good comments. And, yet, Justice was done. In spite of the attempts to pack the jury, to try to paint the victim as a criminal, to portray the defendants as the upholders of the law, a jury of 11 whites and one black condemned them in the strongest way. The jury listened to the testimony, considered the evidence, and judged them guilty. I stand by my article. This is not the Georgia of the 1850s or the 1950s. Thank God for that.
    David Epps

  8. A citizen’s arrest was never announced or even mentioned to the victim as they chased him in a pick-up truck (complete with a confederate flag plate), along with a SUV for over 5 minutes. It was only when the defendants were lawyered up later was that claim ever made. Yes there was an initial investigation done, but no charges were made by the two local DA’s offices, even knowing full well that the victim was hunted down to be apprehended – and was done so illegally – and for no crime that was even committed.

    Why no charges? Well, it was a “local” thing Rev Epps. It wasn’t until the Cobb County DA’s office got involved that things were really investigated and prosecuted whereby a video was released to try and prove their so-called innocence. So any wonder why others outside the regional area and outside the state were concerned by the local jury makeup and then were skeptical with the pending verdict? You see, there were no assurances that common sense would prevail there “locally.”