BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Ahmaud Arbery loved to run. It was how the 25-year-old former high school football standout stayed fit, his friends said, and it was not unusual to see him running around the outskirts of this small coastal Georgia city.
But on a Sunday afternoon in February, as Mr. Arbery ran through a suburban neighborhood of ranch houses and moss-draped oaks, he passed a man standing in his front yard, who later told the police that Mr. Arbery looked like the suspect in a string of break-ins.
According to a police report, the man, Gregory McMichael, 64, called out to his son, Travis McMichael, 34. They grabbed their weapons, a .357 magnum revolver and a shotgun, jumped into a truck and began following Mr. Arbery.
“Stop, stop,” they shouted at Mr. Arbery, “we want to talk to you.”
Moments later, after a struggle over the shotgun, Mr. Arbery was killed, shot at least twice. The police report does not mention whether Mr. Arbery was in possession of a weapon.
No one has been charged or arrested in connection with the Feb. 23 killing. The case has received little attention beyond Brunswick, but it has raised questions in this community about racial profiling — Mr. Arbery was black, and the father and son are white — and about the interpretation of the state’s self-defense laws.
The Rev. John Davis Perry II, the president of the Brunswick chapter of the NAACP, has called the shooting “troubling.” And Mr. Arbery’s friends and family have worried that the case, similar to others that have prompted nationwide outrage, might quietly disappear in their Deep South community, because social-distancing restrictions amid the coronavirus outbreak have made it nearly impossible for them to gather and protest.
“We can’t do anything because of this corona stuff,” said Wanda Cooper, Mr. Arbery’s mother. “We thought about walking out where the shooting occurred, just doing a little march, but we can’t be out right now.”
Mr. Arbery was killed three days before the anniversary of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager whose confrontation with a Florida neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement.
According to documents obtained by The New York Times, a prosecutor who had the case for a few weeks told the police that the pursuers had acted within the scope of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute, and that Travis McMichael, who held the shotgun, had acted out of self-defense.
Attempts to reach Gregory McMichael, a retired investigator in the district attorney’s office, were unsuccessful. In a brief phone conversation, Travis McMichael, who runs a company that gives tours of custom boats, declined to comment, citing the continuing investigation.
The prosecutor who wrote the letter, George E. Barnhill, the district attorney for Georgia’s Waycross Judicial Circuit, recused himself from the case this month, after Mr. Arbery’s family complained that he had a conflict of interest. A prosecutor from another county is now in charge and will determine whether the case should be presented to a grand jury.
In and around Brunswick, activists and allies of Mr. Arbery’s family are doing what they can to organize online. They have started a Facebook page and have coordinated a pressure campaign, emailing law enforcement officials and the local newspaper. There are hashtags, #IRunWithMaud and #JusticeForAhmaud, and T-shirts have been printed. But few people are on the streets to see their message.
“There are a lot of people absolutely ready to protest,” said Jason Vaughn, a football coach at Brunswick High School who coached Mr. Arbery, who was an outside linebacker. “But because of social distancing and being safe, we have to watch what’s going on with the coronavirus.”
Mr. Arbery was killed in Satilla Shores, a quiet middle-class enclave that abuts a network of marshlands about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick and a short jog from Mr. Arbery’s neighborhood.
His friends and family said they believed that Mr. Arbery, who was wearing a white T-shirt, khaki shorts, Nike sneakers and a bandanna when he was killed, had been out exercising.
“Everybody in the community knows he runs,” said Mr. Vaughn, who said he saw Mr. Arbery jogging on the streets a few months ago. Mr. Vaughn said that he himself had raised suspicions by jogging through his own neighborhood in the suburbs of Brunswick, recalling a recent instance in which a white woman followed him in a van.
But others contend that Mr. Arbery was up to no good. On the day of the shooting, and apparently moments before the chase, a neighbor in Satilla Shores called 911, telling the dispatcher that a black man in a white T-shirt was inside a house that was under construction and only partially closed in.
“And he’s running right now,” the man told the dispatcher. “There he goes right now!”
In his letter to the police, Mr. Barnhill, the prosecutor, noted that Mr. Arbery had a criminal past. Court records show that Mr. Arbery was convicted of shoplifting and of violating probation in 2018. Five years earlier, according to The Brunswick News, he was indicted on charges that he took a handgun to a high school basketball game.
Still, if Mr. Arbery committed a property crime on the afternoon he was killed, activists and family members said it would not have warranted a chase by armed neighbors.
“This incident was at the least a case of overly zealous citizens that wrongfully profiled the victim without cause,” Mr. Perry wrote in an email. “These men felt justified in taking the law in their own hands.”
Ms. Cooper, Ms. Arbery’s mother, said she believed the men had judged her son by his skin color. If he had committed any crime, she said, “he should have been handled by the police.”
Ms. Cooper pushed for Mr. Barnhill, a veteran prosecutor, to recuse himself from the case after she learned that his son works in the Brunswick district attorney’s office, which had previously employed Gregory McMichael. (The Brunswick district attorney, Jackie Johnson, recused herself early on, also because Mr. McMichael had worked in her office.)
“She believes there are kinships between the parties (there are not) and has made other unfounded allegations of bias(es),” Mr. Barnhill wrote in his letter, sent in early April, to the Glynn County Police Department. As such, Mr. Barnhill wrote, he had decided to step away from the case, and would ask Georgia’s attorney general’s office to pick another prosecutor.
Mr. Barnhill also wrote that he did not believe there was evidence of a crime, noting that Gregory McMichael and his son had been legally carrying their weapons under Georgia law. And because Mr. Arbery was a “burglary suspect,” the pursuers, who had “solid firsthand probable cause,” were justified in chasing him under the state’s citizen’s arrest law.
In a separate document also obtained by The Times, Mr. Barnhill stated that video exists of Mr. Arbery “burglarizing a home immediately preceding the chase and confrontation.” In the letter to the police, he cites a separate video of the shooting filmed by a third pursuer.
Mr. Barnhill said this video, which has not been made public, shows Mr. Arbery attacking Travis McMichael after he and his father pulled up to him in their truck.
The video shows Mr. Arbery trying to grab the shotgun from Travis McMichael’s hands, Mr. Barnhill wrote. And that, he argued, amounts to self-defense under Georgia law. Travis McMichael, Mr. Barnhill concluded, “was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.”
He noted that it was possible that Mr. Arbery had caused the gun to go off by pulling on it, and pointed to Mr. Arbery’s “mental health records” and prior convictions, which, he said, “help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man.”
After Mr. Barnhill recused himself, the case was assigned to Tom Durden, in the city of Hinesville, Ga., who must now decide whether to present the case to a grand jury for possible indictments. In an interview last week, Mr. Durden said his team had begun reviewing the evidence. “We don’t know anything about the case,” he said. “We don’t have any preconceived idea about it.”
The police report is based almost solely upon the responding officer’s interview with Gregory McMichael, who had worked at the police department from 1982 to 1989. The responding officer describes him as a witness. According to the report, Mr. McMichael told the officer that he and his son pulled up near Mr. Arbery, that his son got out of the truck with the shotgun, and that his son and Mr. Arbery then fought over the weapon, “at which point Travis fired a shot and then a second later there was a second shot.”
Michael J. Moore, an Atlanta lawyer who formerly served as a U.S. attorney in Georgia, reviewed Mr. Barnhill’s letter to the Glynn County Police Department, as well as the initial police report, at the request of The Times. In an email, Mr. Moore called Mr. Barnhill’s opinion “flawed.”
In his view, Mr. Moore said, the McMichaels appeared to be the aggressors in the confrontation, and such aggressors were not justified in using force under Georgia’s self-defense laws. “The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime,” Mr. Moore wrote.
Nearly two months after the shooting, residents of Satilla Shores remained on guard. One woman angrily asked what a reporter was up to, and another approached almost immediately with similar questions, announcing that she was armed and that she had notified the police.
Mr. Vaughn, the football coach, said on Sunday that he and other activists had come up with a plan to keep the pressure on the authorities. They plan to drive to Mr. Durden’s office in Hinesville, he said, about an hour away. They will mark off spots on the sidewalk so that they remain several feet apart. And they will enter the building, one by one, to ask why the men who chased Mr. Arbery have not been arrested.