A lawyer representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery has said that the US Department of Justice is investigating his killing as a possible hate crime.
Lee Merritt said federal authorities are not only pursuing the hate crime line, but are also investigating two local county officials, George Barnhill and Jackie Johnson, who recused themselves from the case shortly after the killing in February, according to several news reports quoting him.
Mr Barnhill and Ms Johnson both resigned under pressure over conflicts of interests, as they had professional connections with the killers, Gregory and Travis McMichael – and in his letter of recusal, Mr Barnhill recommended that no arrest be made in the case. Ms Johnson is alleged to have made a similar recommendation.
Mr Arbery, who was black, was killed by the white McMichaels after they chased him down their street, where he was jogging, and began an altercation with him while each carrying a gun. The incident ended with Mr Arbery fatally shot.
While the killing occurred on 23 February, it was only after a video of the killing shot by a neighbour of the McMichaels recently went viral that the two men were arrested and charged. The man who shot the video, William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., has since been charged with charges including felony murder.
There are several sets of circumstances under which a hate crime can be prosecuted by the department’s Civil Rights Division instead of state authorities, including that “a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice” and that “the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to state charges did not demonstratively vindicate the federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence.”
The law was originally introduced in the late 1960s to sanction bias-motivated crimes at the federal level. It has in part been used to ensure that hate-motivated crimes can be investigated and prosecuted even where they occurred in states whose authorities had a history of routinely overlooking them.
The original law included race, color, religion and national origin as circumscribed motives for committing a crime against somebody; over the years, gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation have been added to the definition.
As the fallout from the Arbery killing has continued, other incidents involving him have come to light, recently including a 2017 encounter with the police in which an officer attempted to tase him. He was apparently being questioned by them after they asked him why he was sitting in his car alone in a park.