Civil War-Era Law Used In Defense Of Men Accused Of Killing Ahmaud Arbery

William Bryan + Kevin Gough

Photo: Getty Images

When Ahmaud Arbery was killed during a violent encounter with George McMichael, Travis McMichael and William "Roddy" Bryan, many people made comparisons between his death and the deaths of Black men in the south during the 19th and 20th century. More than a year later, a law that was introduced during the 19th century sits at the center of the trial of the men accused of killing him.

Reuters reports that attorneys representing the three defendants plan to use a statute that was introduced in 1863 to defend their clients. The statute in question allows people in Georgia to make a citizens arrest if they "reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion" that a felony was committed. Legal experts like Chris Slobogin of Vanderbilt University argue that Civil War-era citizens arrest laws can lead to dangerous outcomes like the one at the center of this case.

"Things can get out of control quickly," Slobogin told Reuters.

Public opposition to this law coupled with the untimely death of Arbery led Georgia officials to revoke the 1863 law in May. However, revoking the law will not change the outcome of this particular case because it was in effect in February 2020.

"Citizen's arrest is a big part of our case, a big part," Bryan's attorney, Kevin Gough, explained to Reuters.

"They changed the law, but changing the law doesn't affect us. It doesn't change what was the law of the land at the time."

Despite Gough's assertions, legal observers question whether the trio had the right to make an arrest under the old law. Shortly before Arbery was killed, he stopped at a home that was being built. The trio was under the belief that he was trespassing, but nothing was taken and the owner of the property believes he could've stopped to take a drink during his morning jog. Adding on, Arbery has never been convicted of a felony and was unarmed at the time he was shot.

Ultimately, the battle to determine whether their was probable cause to make a citizens arrest will largely determine the outcome the trial.

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