WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The U.S. Justice Department announced federal hate crime charges Wednesday in the death of a Georgia man who was killed while out for a run last year.
The criminal case charging the three men in connection with the death of Ahmaud Arbery is the most significant civil rights prosecution undertaken to date by the Biden administration Justice Department. It comes as federal officials have moved quickly to open civil rights investigations into troubled police departments.
Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was killed on Feb. 23, 2020, after three white men armed with guns pursued him as he ran through a neighborhood in the Georgia port city of Brunswick.
Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory, and a third man, William “Roddie” Bryan, are all charged with one count of interference with civil rights and a separate count of attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.
In a statement announcing the indictments, prosecutors say the three men “used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.”
Federal officials say the three men armed themselves with firearms before getting into a truck and chasing Arbery as he ran, yelling at him, threatening him with weapons and eventually using the truck to cut off his route and attempting to “unlawfully seize and confine him.”
The McMichaels had told police they stopped Arbery because they believed he may have been linked to recent break-ins in the area. During the confrontation, Travis McMichael shot Arbery three times at close range, killing him.
All three have also been charged by the State of Georgia with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, applauded the hate crimes charges Wednesday, tweeting that the federal case would “serve as a fail-safe to the state prosecution.”
“Hate claimed Ahmaud’s life,” Merritt tweeted. “Our justice system must combat intolerance.”
Arbery had been dead for more than two months when a cellphone video of the shooting was leaked online and a national outcry erupted.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case the next day and swiftly arrested Travis McMichael, who fired the shots, his father, and Bryan, a neighbor who joined the pursuit and took the video. The three men remain jailed on state murder charges and are due back in court in May.
The McMichaels’ lawyers have said they pursued Arbery, suspecting he was a burglar, after security cameras had previously recorded him entering a home under construction. They say Travis McMichael shot Arbery while fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun.
Local prosecutors have said Arbery stole nothing and was merely out jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him.
In pretrial court hearings in Georgia, prosecutors have presented evidence that racism may have played a role in the man’s death.
Last June, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation testified Bryan told investigators that Travis McMichael uttered a racist slur right after the shooting as he stood over Arbery, who was bleeding on the ground.
At the time Arbery was killed, Georgia was one of just four U.S. states without a hate crimes law. Amid the outcry over his death, Georgia lawmakers quickly passed a law allowing for an additional penalty for certain crimes found to be motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, or mental or physical disability.
The men charged with murdering Arbery won’t face hate crime penalties at the state level because the law was changed after the killing.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said the state case remained a priority, and he commended “this positive development and the continued push to get answers for Ahmaud’s family, community and our state.”
Attorneys for Travis McMichael said they were disappointed “that the Justice Department bought the false narrative that the media and state prosecutors have promulgated.”
“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 said.
Gregory McMichael’s attorneys, Frank and Laura Hogue, did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email seeking comment and Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, said he had no immediate comment because he had not read the federal indictment.
No trial date has been set for the state case and the McMichaels remain jailed after a judge denied bail in their case.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.