Hate crimes

The Men Accused of Killing Ahmaud Arbery Should Not Face Federal Hate Crime Charges

Charge them for their crimes, not their thoughts.


Seventy-four days elapsed before the state of Georgia announced it would prosecute Travis McMichael, George McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan for murdering Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia. The state took action only after a viral video showed the three men confronting Arbery, who they suspected of burglary.

All three were ultimately indicted last June by a Georgia grand jury on four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, as well as one count each of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. All of which is to say that while the justice system moved too slowly, it did in fact move.

Despite that fact, the Department of Justice announced yesterday that it had filed federal hate crime charges against the men, who now each face one count of interference with rights and one count of attempted kidnapping, while the McMichaels also face "one count each of using, carrying, and brandishing—and in Travis's case, discharging—a firearm during and in relation to" a violent crime.

"Counts One and Two of the indictment allege that the defendants used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery's right to use a public street because of his race," reads the announcement.

Though Bryan wasn't part of the direct confrontation between the McMichaels and Arbery—he filmed it—he is charged with using his truck to block off a route of escape.

The case is nothing short of nauseating, and Arbery's race did in fact play a role. "Bryan said that after the shooting took place before police arrival, while Mr. Arbery was on the ground," Special Agent Richard Dial of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation testified, "that he heard Travis McMichael make the statement: fucking nigger."

But hate crime charges for Arbery's killers do not produce more or better justice. The perpetrators of racially motivated violence do not deserve a worse punishment than people who commit opportunistic violence, or violence inspired by a mutable trait or characteristic. Our laws should punish crimes, not bad thoughts.

What's more, the entire concept of a hate crime has been undermined by increasingly expansive interpretations. "Everyone agrees that it should be a hate crime to shoot a police officer," said state Sen. Cam Ward (R–Alabaster), the chairman of the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee, in 2019. The Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office last year handed down hate crime charges to Nicole Anderson and David Nelson for painting over a city-sponsored Black Lives Matter mural.

Also problematic with the DOJ pursuing a civil rights prosecution is that Georgia is already in the process of trying all three men. Way back in 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union discouraged this exact type of federal hate crime prosecution when it beseeched the Senate to "further limit[] the federal government's jurisdiction to prosecute when state or local prosecutors are diligently investigating and prosecuting a person for the same crime." The ACLU was worried at the time that expanding federal hate crime law "could result in an unwarranted expansion of federal authority to prosecute defendants—even when a competent state prosecution is available." They weren't wrong.

The defense team has raised its own issues with the DOJ getting involved. "There is absolutely nothing in the indictment that identifies how this is a federal hate crime and it ignores without apology that Georgia law allows a citizen to detain a person who was committing burglaries until police arrive," attorneys Bob Rubin and Jason Sheffield, who are representing Travis McMichael, told NPR.

Arbery and his family deserve justice. The DOJ should allow Georgia to grant it.