When the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced last week that it would be probing the Glynn County Police Department’s dismissal of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, some people breathed a sigh of relief. It was a welcome development after the lynching of a 25-year-old black man, whose white killers had been walking free for 74 days — even though the entire incident was caught on tape.
But those familiar with the GBI responded with warranted skepticism. Sure, it was a step in the right direction. But at that point, almost anything would have been. Local police and elected officials for over two months had found reasons not to arrest either of the men — Gregory and Travis McMichael — who chased and killed Arbery while he was jogging. After all, one was their former colleague. The other, his son.
Hinesville District Attorney Tom Durden, the third prosecutor to take on the case, formally requested the GBI’s assistance on May 5. It was a critical moment: The disturbing graphic video of Arbery’s death had been broadcast on national television and shared thousands of times, following revelations that the Glynn County Police Department, where Gregory McMichael once worked, and local district attorneys had gone to great lengths to smear Arbery’s name and protect his killers. The public outcry that followed is the reason the McMichaels were arrested at all.
The GBI — which is generally revered throughout the state and is often brought in to investigate police-involved shootings of current or former officers, like Gregory McMichael, to get around conflicts of interest — has repeatedly been accused of mishandling such investigations — in some cases intentionally. The agency has botched cases in which the investigating officers appeared to be motivated by racism, leading to wrongful convictions. The agency has also repeatedly failed to hold accountable and break up powerful networks of officers who broke laws in the course of their work — causing and covering up overwhelming violence.
In Georgia, where the Ku Klux Klan once infiltrated every level of law enforcement, racism can play a role in violent crimes and the way they are investigated. Arbery’s case is no different: There are clear parallels to the lynch mobs that routinely chased, tortured, and murdered black Americans from the time of slavery through the 1960s. Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,000 black people in the U.S. — including 589 people in Georgia — were killed in lynchings. The KKK’s stranglehold over Georgia’s law enforcement apparatus decades ago laid the groundwork for a historically deadly relationship between the cops, white people, and black people. The white supremacist underpinnings of U.S. law enforcement continue to echo throughout the country, as shown by the multiple other police-involved shootings and others murders that have taken place since Arbery was killed — and are being covered up and drowned out during the ongoing pandemic.
Some lawyers in the state are optimistic that the GBI’s new director, former Cobb County DA and Chief Magistrate Judge Vic Reynolds, will give the case the attention it deserves. Still, a closer look at the agency’s record raises questions about whether it can be trusted to do so.
“There are communities that absolutely are skeptical about whether the GBI or whether any law enforcement agency is going to adequately investigate its law enforcement brethren,” Jon Rapping, a professor and director of the criminal justice certificate program at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, told The Intercept. “That suspicion undoubtedly is going to create a lot of skepticism about whether the GBI is going to do justice in this case.”
The history of the GBI, established in 1937, is interwoven with the history of the Ku Klux Klan, which was a terrorizing force in Georgia in the mid-20th century. One of the earliest directors of the GBI, who later served as an Atlanta police officer, Sam Roper, was a local Klan leader when he took over the GBI after former Georgia Gov. Gene Talmadge won another reelection in 1946. Roper, whose links to the agency have been all but wiped from public records, later recruited Klan members into his police department, Frederick Allen wrote in the 1996 book, “Atlanta Rising.” Roper campaigned in support of Talmadge’s 1946 reelection and planned to install Klan members in “every Georgia County and pay him $125 a month to ‘assist’ the local sheriff” after Talmadge won, Allen wrote. Roper left the GBI shortly afterward and became an Imperial Wizard of the KKK in 1949.
Stetson Kennedy, a human rights activist famous for infiltrating the Klan in the 1940s, wrote in his 1990 book that when Klan leader David Duke asked him who was “running the Klan now,” he told Duke that it was the GBI’s former director, Roper. “I know Roper all right!” Duke said.
Over the years, including in one unsolved 1946 lynching case currently under plans for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the GBI and other Georgia law enforcement agencies have been accused of improperly handling investigations, including those related to Klan-linked killings. In more recent history, the agency has failed to hold police accountable for deadly violence — or for detaining, arresting, and extrajudicially killing people, many of whom were bystanders. (Just last year, the GBI investigated 84 cases of officer-involved shootings, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The agency does not track officers who were disciplined or charged in those cases.)
In two recent cases that cost local governments over $3 million in settlements, the GBI failed to adequately investigate a narcotics task force that conducted a violent 2014 raid that put an infant in a burn unit under a medically induced coma, and killed a reverend in 2009. In both cases, the GBI cleared agents of wrongdoing, even blaming the reverend for his own killing. In the case of the 2014 raid, which the GBI at the time denied that the local task force had approved — the agency, a former district attorney, and a grand jury failed to find “what the feds found — that this entire raid was based on a series of lies,” wrote Washington Post columnist Radley Balko. In the case of the reverend, in which the GBI investigated and cleared agents of wrongdoing and said they followed appropriate procedures, his family eventually won a $2.3 million settlement against the officer who shot him. These cases left Balko with the following conclusion: “The Georgia Bureau of Investigation probably shouldn’t be trusted to conduct unbiased, thorough investigations of other law enforcement officers.”
The GBI has a mixed record in cases involving wrongful convictions, sometimes failing to pursue obvious leads or otherwise mishandling an investigation. In 1979, testimony from a GBI agent helped send John White to prison for a rape, burglary, and robbery that he did not commit. Later, GBI helped with White’s exoneration; he was released in 2007 after serving more than 20 years of a life sentence.
In the case of Kerry Robinson, who was released in January on a wrongful conviction after serving close to 18 years of a 20-year sentence, a GBI DNA analyst provided “inaccurate and overstated testimony,” according to the Georgia Innocence Project.
Perhaps the most troubling of recent examples is the 1999 wrongful indictment of Devonia Inman, whose case is the subject of a podcast and a series of articles by The Intercept’s Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith. Inman has been in prison since the day before his 23rd birthday for the murder of Donna Brown, even though the GBI has matched DNA found at the scene of the crime to another man. The person whose DNA the GBI identified went on to kill at least two other people and is currently serving a federal life sentence without parole.
Like with Arbery, the GBI’s involvement in Inman’s case was initially seen as a step in the right direction. In the early 2000s, the GBI was ahead of local police regarding access to new DNA technology and “routinely” took over cases in South Georgia’s rural towns, The Intercept reported.
Inman’s is “a story about racism, bad policing, and people who looked the other way,” Segura and Smith say in the “Murderville” podcast. Much of the same can be said of Arbery’s.
The GBI entered Arbery’s case after Brunswick-area police dismissed it, and one prosecutor deemed the killing “perfectly legal.”
Having reviewed the tape, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill the day after the killing told the first prosecuting attorney’s office that he thought it was justified, AJC reported. The two district attorneys, including Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson, recused themselves from the case — McMichael had worked under Johnson’s direction with Barnhill’s son to prosecute Arbery two years ago.
In a widely circulated letter from April 1 to the Glynn County police captain, Barnhill said he saw no grounds to arrest the McMichaels, that Arbery was “aggressive” and capable of the crime, and that his family was “not strangers to the local criminal justice system,” using the deceased’s mental health and a previous conviction to paint that picture. Michael Mears, an associate professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, said more scrutiny should be put on both prosecutors, particularly Johnson, who has protected violent police officers in other cases.
The attempts to smear Arbery continued after the video of his killing was released. When one video showed Arbery at a home under construction in the neighborhood, right-wing and even some mainstream outlets used it in an attempt to support the McMichaels’s claim that they believed Arbery was a suspect in a string of burglaries. Those looking to justify his killing used the opportunity to try to poke holes in the shooting video.
Georgia criminal defense attorneys are approaching the GBI’s involvement in the Arbery case with cautious optimism.
Georgia criminal defense attorneys are approaching the GBI’s involvement in the Arbery case with cautious optimism, drawing contrasts to its controversial past and pointing to Vic Reynolds, the agency’s new director, who has made public assurances that the investigation, and the organization as a whole, would operate professionally.
When asked why people should trust the GBI to hold its own accountable in this case, and what the agency has done recently to combat suspicion given its record in cases detailed above, Nelly Miles, a GBI spokesperson, pointed to Reynolds’s May 9 press conference, where he recounted how the agency moved swiftly to arrest the McMichaels and said he understood concerns from the community and across the country as to whether others would be charged. “I will tell you that this case is an active, ongoing investigation,” Reynolds said.
Another factor differentiating the Arbery case from GBI’s usual docket, two lawyers told The Intercept, is that the agency is tasked with holding accountable the network of people who covered up and dismissed Arbery’s killing, not just those who actually carried it out.
“I think everyone was relieved to see the GBI get involved,” said criminal defense attorney Page Pate, “just because they didn’t have direct relationships with the potential suspects in the case.”
Georgia’s need to grapple with Arbery’s killing comes against the backdrop of a long and dark history violence against black people in Georgia — including decades-old lynchings that remain unsolved.
A 1946 case involving a summer ambush and murder of two black couples, Mae and George Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom, who were shot more than 60 times, their bodies further mutilated after being left at an unsecured crime scene, is one example. No one was ever prosecuted for the lynching, which the GBI and FBI deemed a cold case. An eyewitness who was 10 years old at the time said a Georgia police officer participated in the killing, and that he saw a police patrol car at the bridge when it happened, the AJC reported in 2017. Investigators never verified his claim — even as the FBI convened a 16-day grand jury and conducted 2,790 interviews.
Journalist Anthony Pitch in 2016 wrote an exhaustive book on the case, “The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town,” replete with examples of relationships between the 1946 grand jurors and people who testified before them. (1946 was also the first year that black people could vote in Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Maceo Snipes was the only black person to vote that day in his district, and the first ever in Taylor County. The next day, men thought to be members of the Klu Klux Klan found him at his grandfather’s farmhouse and shot him. His shooter was acquitted on claims of self-defense, and the federal investigation was closed in 2010.)
In March of this year, a federal court ruled that the records in the case must remain under seal. The attorney on the case, who took it up at Pitch’s request, is planning to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The legal system at the time made it fairly easy for lynchings to continue unpunished. In 1938, eight years before the lynching that Pitch would later describe as Georgia’s last, the state’s two Democratic senators successfully tanked a federal anti-lynching bill that, with 70 sponsors, had some potential. Sen. Richard Russell, a former governor who had also stymied an earlier version of the bill, said the proposal was a top priority of the Communist agenda, lynching was on its way out, and that the law would portray an image to the world that Southerners were “a clan of barbarians,” Pitch wrote in his book.
More than 80 years later, even as public consciousness has grown around state-sanctioned anti-black violence, Congress continues to debate anti-lynching measures. Largely symbolic, the bills would establish a new federal criminal civil rights violation and subsequent penalties for lynching. One passed the Senate on a voice vote early last year, and another passed the House in February.
Still, little has been done to hold perpetrators of racist violence accountable. Even in highly publicized cases of killings of black people in recent years, few people have been held responsible.
“I don’t think what happened in the Arbery case is necessarily that unusual. I think a light was shined on it, and it was exposed,” said Rapping of John Marshall. “And I think bringing the GBI in was an attempt to put a lid on a pot that was bubbling over.”