The mother of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while out for a jog near his home in Georgia, believes “there will be justice”.
The 25-year-old was shot by a white father and son in an attack his family say was clearly racist.
“He was African-American, he was jogging in a predominantly white neighbourhood – he was targeted for the colour of his skin,” says Wanda Cooper-Jones.
Gregory and Travis McMichael were charged with murder last week.
It was the first time any arrests had been made in the case, despite Ahmaud being killed on 23 February. The McMichaels admitted to killing Ahmaud in the initial police report, claiming they acted in self-defence.
Given the time that had passed, the arrests surprised Wanda.
“In the very beginning, when it first occurred, I thought it was going to be covered up. Everything was working in that direction. If we didn’t find the right resources to push the issue we wouldn’t have an arrest today.”
She adds: “They visited a crime scene where there was a man dead. And all parties that were responsible were able to return home while my son was taken to the morgue.”
The Glynn County Police Department says it has “sought justice in this case from the beginning”.
‘He loved life’
Ahmaud, from Brunswick in Georgia, was “humble, happy and well-mannered”, according to his mum.
“He loved life. He was love. To know Ahmaud was to love Ahmaud.”
He had dreams of being a “very successful electrician, like his uncles are”.
“Ahmaud was young. He loved – so I’m quite sure he dreamed of having a wife and kids.
“All that was taken away.”
Wanda says it’s been “long, stressful and hopeless” trying to get Ahmaud’s name out there in the months since his death.
Ordinarily with cases like this we would expect to see pictures of demonstrators out on the streets. But Ahmaud was killed as coronavirus began its spread and the lockdown started.
“I really was getting to a point where I never thought I would receive justice.”
The family set up the #RunWithMaud Facebook page, which encouraged people to dedicate their workouts to the 25-year-old and share the hashtag.
But it was a video of the shooting going viral that changed things. It was filmed from a vehicle following Ahmaud and shows him jogging towards a stationary truck ahead of him. He tries to bypass the truck and is seen struggling with a man carrying a shotgun. There is muffled shouting and three gunshots.
Two days later the first arrests came.
“I haven’t viewed the video, but I think it’s good that it came out,” says Wanda, who was “really surprised” by the arrests.
Lawyer for the family Lee Merritt says “we shouldn’t have needed a video” for an arrest to be made, adding that it’s “not something that should be for this kind of public consumption. I don’t think it’s helpful for the African-American community”.
“If nothing else, that video has angered, frightened, and stirred up emotions in a lot of different people… it obviously was a catalyst to get us to justice,” he says.
William Bryan, who filmed the video, is being investigated.
In America, district attorneys are the people in charge of prosecuting people in different counties. Ahmaud’s case is now on its fourth, which lawyer Lee says is unheard of.
Two district attorneys removed themselves from the case due to professional connections to Gregory McMichael. The 64-year-old is a former police officer who also worked as an investigator for the local district attorney for years and had retired in 2019.
Jackie Johnson and George Barnhill’s handling of the investigation is now being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
And the federal government, which operates across the whole of the USA rather than just in individual states, is now involved too – with Donald Trump saying he is “disturbed” by the case.
“We are assessing all of the evidence to determine whether federal hate crime charges are appropriate,” Department of Justice (DOJ) spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said, adding that the FBI is also involved.
Georgia, where Ahmaud was killed, is one of four states in America with no hate crime statutes, but the federal government can file those charges.
Lee Merritt says the response Ahmaud’s case has received is “extremely rare”.
“I represent a lot of victims of high-profile police shootings – and Gregory McMichael is a police officer.
“I always ask for a special prosecutor and almost never get one. I almost always ask for a DOJ investigation and almost never get one. And to have the people who failed to act, to have them being investigated? Almost never happens.”
He says that things in South Georgia and all over the country “are very tense” due to coronavirus.
“There has been an increase in police violence, particularly against African Americans, as they tried to enforce social distancing. I think this was a bridge too far and the powers that be understand they have to respond accordingly.”
Last week, 8 May, would have been Ahmaud’s 26th birthday.
On the day Wanda received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey, something she says “really meant a lot”.
“Ahmaud’s gone, but people are actually supporting us nationally – so that makes me feel good.”