By Emma Hurt
About a year after the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery became national news, and nearly 15 months after he was shot while jogging down a street, Georgia has repealed the vague law being used to defend the men charged with murder in his killing.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the overhaul he championed at the Georgia Capitol on Monday, alongside a bipartisan group of state lawmakers as well as Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and sister, Jasmine Arbery.
“I think the state of Georgia is moving in the right direction by passing this particular bill,” Cooper-Jones said at the Capitol. “Unfortunately, I had to lose my son to get significant change. But again, I’m still thankful.”
At the ceremony, Kemp said, “This bill makes Georgia the first state in the country to repeal its citizen’s arrest statute.”
“Today we are replacing a Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse, with language that balances the sacred right to self-defense of a person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward,” he said.
The law, which allowed any citizen to “arrest” another if a crime was committed “within his immediate knowledge,” has been replaced with specific language to provide for citizen detainment in specific circumstances, including shopkeepers who witness shoplifters and restaurant owners and employees who witness “dine and dash” customers.
The men accused in Arbery’s killing have said they thought Arbery had committed a burglary when they chased him through a neighborhood near Brunswick, though no evidence of that crime has emerged.
It marks the second Georgia law to change in a bipartisan manner following Arbery’s death. The state General Assembly passed a hate crimes statute last summer in Arbery’s name.
“Too often we spend time under the Gold Dome arguing over differences. But the outpouring of bipartisan support that this bill received, I believe, is a testament to the fundamental character of our state,” Kemp said Monday.
“Today, Georgia is doing what is right.”
In a statement, Democratic state Sen. Tonya Anderson said, “Last year, upon the passing of hate crimes legislation, the [Georgia Legislative Black] Caucus made a pledge to end the practice of citizen’s arrest. [On Monday], with the signing of his name, Gov. Kemp has helped us keep that pledge. We are now the first state to repeal citizen’s arrest and I hope not the last.”
Anderson, the chair of the caucus, said, “I ask the governor and my fellow legislators to continue pursuing the goal of criminal justice reform. There is more work to do and we are prepared to do it, together as one Georgia.”
The bill’s signing comes as state and federal charges against the three men involved in Arbery’s death, Greg and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, are moving forward.
A federal arraignment on hate crimes and attempted kidnapping charges is set for Tuesday, and hearings in the state murder prosecutions are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.
“The family is still focusing on criminal accountability and seeing this case through to a prosecution and appropriate sentencing on both state and federal levels,” said Lee Merritt, Cooper-Jones’ attorney.
He said that the citizen’s arrest law “created the atmosphere for what happened to Ahmaud” and that “its repeal is evidence of that.”