ATLANTA – Attorneys for the family of Ahmaud Arbery along with civil rights leaders are demanding that law enforcement officials arrest and charge two armed white men who killed Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed black man, as he jogged through a southern Georgia neighborhood.
The incident, which happened Feb. 23 in the city of Brunswick in Glynn County, was captured on a video that has been spread widely on social media.
Attorneys say they believe Arbery was a victim of racial profiling and they are not willing to wait for a grand jury to convene on the charges, which may not happen for another month. Georgia courts are largely closed through June 12 because of the coronavirus.
"We want an immediate arrest because we don’t think there should be two justice systems in America – one for black America and one for white America,” said Ben Crump, an attorney who is representing the Arbery family. "Ahmaud Arbery's life matters, and the fact that you have proof of the crime, you have a video ... black people get arrested everyday with far less evidence."
Lee Merritt, who is partnering with Crump to represent the family, shared the video of the incident on his Twitter page Tuesday saying, "This is murder."
Civil rights groups including the ACLU, NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center have called for justice, likening the incident to the controversial killing of Trayvon Martin in which the killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted.
"We call on the officials in Brunswick to enforce the rule of law so that it can be safe for citizens to walk the streets,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said in a statement. “Ahmaud was killed three days before the anniversary of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. Both incidents are a reminder that white supremacy has been a foundation for our country and leads repeatedly to the targeting and harming people of color, particularly African Americans.”
Georgia NAACP President James Woodall called the shooting "white supremacy full on." He said he is planning a protest Friday at the Glynn County courthouse.
“Until this country can truly acknowledge the ills of its system, we will continue to see black blood drain our streets," Woodall said.
Arbery was killed after being followed and confronted by Gregory and Travis McMichael that afternoon in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, attorneys say.
Family members say Arbery lived nearby with his mother.
Gregory McMichael told police he believed Arbery was the person seen on a surveillance video breaking into homes, according to a police report obtained by The New York Times.
Gregory McMichael said he was in his front yard when he spotted Arbery and he and his son grabbed their guns from inside the house because they "didn't know if the male was armed or not." The father and son then got in their truck and began chasing Arbery.
Gregory McMichael told police they shouted to Arbery "stop stop, we want to talk to you." He said Travis McMichael then got out of the truck and Arbery began to "violently attack" him. The two tussled over Travis McMichael's shotgun before two shots rang out, the report says. Arbery then fell face down on the pavement.
A phone number listed for Gregory McMichael was disconnected on Wednesday. USA TODAY could not find a phone number for Travis McMichael.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader and founder of the National Action Network, said he believes the two men targeted Arbery because he was black and had no right to approach him without involving the police.
Sharpton said coronavirus restrictions have prevented him from leading rallies in Brunswick, but he plans to travel there as soon as it's safe.
"You would have to believe that what made him a suspect was the color of his skin," Sharpton said.
Advocates have launched a petition demanding that the Department of Justice and FBI investigate the case and file charges.
The Associated Press reported that Jackie Johnson, the district attorney for Glynn County, recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael was a retired investigator for her office.
Tom Durden, an outside prosecutor assigned to review the case, said he plans to have a grand jury consider criminal charges.
However, he said the state's courts are currently "prohibited from empaneling grand or trial juries."
"I have no control over the suspensions due to the pandemic; however, I do intend to present the case to the next available grand jury in Glynn County," Durden said in a statement.
But attorneys for the Arbery family reject Durden's claim that his hands are tied.
Merritt said Durden is not being aggressive enough and called for a special prosecutor to be appointed or for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over the case.
“It's an absurd conclusion … that because of coronavirus, you can't make an arrest?” Merritt said in an interview with USA TODAY. "We are not that easily fooled by that excuse."
GBI Director Vic Reynolds announced in a video posted to Twitter on Wednesday that his office would be aiding in the investigation.
“I realize that emotions are running high in this community and they are running high throughout this state,” Reynolds said. “I am confident that we will do justice in this matter.”
Ahmaud Arbery's father, Marcus, said he believes that if the McMichaels were black and Ahmaud was white, there would have been an immediate arrest.
He said his son was an avid jogger who also loved to play football.
"He was a good-hearted young man," Marcus Arbery said. "He cared about people and family and he wouldn’t never hurt nobody."