Georgia has overhauled a Civil War-era law that allowed residents to arrest anyone they suspected of committing a crime – a “citizen’s arrest” law invoked by the defence of the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery last year.
The Arbery case garnered international outrage, with civil rights activists saying it marked yet another example of a targeted attack on a Black man.
The Georgia General Assembly on Wednesday approved the bill across party lines by wide margins in both the House and Senate, and now it is headed to Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who has said he will sign it.
“Ahmaud was the victim of vigilante-style violence that has no place in Georgia,” Kemp told the media.
The citizen’s arrest law came under scrutiny after the February 2020 death of Arbery, 25, who was chased down and shot as he jogged near his south Georgia home. The shooting was caught on a cellphone video that went viral.
The 1863 Georgia law allowed any resident to arrest someone they suspected of committing a crime, a law critics say was enacted to detain people suspected of being runaway slaves.
Kemp said in a press release that the bill repealed “Civil War-era language in our laws that is ripe for abuse.”
Republican Representative Bert Reeves, the primary sponsor of the bill, said the bill was a “common-sense move that should have been done a long time ago. It achieves meaningful reform to prevent vigilantism.”
The father and son who pursued Arbery – former Glynn County police officer Greg McMichael and his son Travis – were not arrested or charged until more than two months after the shooting. One prosecutor assigned to the case cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law to argue that the shooting was justified.
The McMichaels’ lawyers have said they pursued Arbery suspecting he was a burglar after security cameras had previously recorded him entering a home under construction. They said Travis McMichael shot Arbery while fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun. The McMichaels are charged with murder and aggravated assault.
Video of the fatal encounter was recorded by William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbour who joined the chase and is also charged with murder.
Prosecutors have said Arbery stole nothing and was merely out jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him. They remain jailed without bail.
Bryan’s lawyer, Kevin Gough, said the citizen’s arrest law was one of the foundations of the defence for all three accused and that the General Assembly’s new measure did not change what was the law last year.
Gerald Griggs, vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the law needed to be abolished.
“It allowed people to just go play police officer and when they don’t know what they’re doing,” Griggs said. “It was deadly in brother Ahmaud’s case.”
No trial date has yet been set for the three.