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Editorial: Is Trump’s Justice Department capable of a fair investigation into the Ahmaud Arbery shooting?

Keith Smith
Keith Smith addresses protesters marching through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga., on May 5, demanding answers regarding the death of Ahmaud Arbery.
(Bobby Haven / Associated Press)

The U.S. Department of Justice has stepped into the Ahmaud Arbery case, announcing on Monday that it would consider hate crime charges in the killing of the unarmed African American man in Georgia on Feb. 25. Georgia’s attorney general also has asked the Justice Department to review state and local officials’ handling of their investigations in the case. And the department would be well within its purview to consider civil rights charges.

Federal involvement is certainly welcome in the shocking incident, in which Arbery was trailed while out for a jog and then fatally shot, ostensibly because he looked like a suspect in a string of local burglaries. There were no arrests until leaked video sparked public outrage months after the incident.

Justice Department intervention would once have been deemed virtually automatic in such a case: an unarmed black man chased down and killed in a Southern state by two white men, one of whom, Gregory McMichael, is a former police officer and prosecutor’s investigator. (The other man, McMichael’s son, Travis McMichael, is alleged to have fired the fatal shots.) The situation brings to mind a legacy of lynching and vigilantism, and the blurry line that separates those extra-legal practices from citizen “policing.” It merges the distant memory of Emmett Till with the fresher scars left by the killing of Trayvon Martin.

As welcome as federal involvement is, however, it no longer provides the confidence it once did that justice would be served. The department has sharply curtailed its role in state and local policing and prosecution. Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s first attorney general, made clear his intention to provide more support and less scrutiny to local police officials. He scuttled former Atty. Gen. Eric Holder’s oversight program for police departments and curtailed lawsuits against police, school districts and other agencies over patterns of civil rights violations.

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Current Atty. Gen. William Barr has been less vocal about nonintervention in local matters but for the most part has followed Sessions’ policies.

At the local level, the case was convoluted and perhaps compromised by the elder McMichael’s previous position as an officer in the Glynn County Police Department and a prosecutor’s investigator. The department released both McMichaels without charges. After one local prosecutor recused herself from the case, a second advised police not to make arrests — and then recused himself as well. The state ultimately filed charges, and Georgia’s attorney general said he would review the investigation into Arbery’s death.

That’s good, as far as it goes. But the state AG properly recognized that the troubling facts of not just the shooting but the aftermath require a separate examination by outside officials. There has long been a very useful interplay between state and federal authorities in controversial criminal investigations. U.S. participation could provide Georgia some solid backup, and perhaps win back some of the confidence that Sessions squandered.


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