Is the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Ready to Investigate Arbery Cover-Up?
by Jayson Hawkins
The murder of Ahmaud Arbery was shockingly mishandled by local police from the very beginning. Two White men chased down and shot a young Black man, and yet they had not been charged two months later, despite the fact that the whole event was caught on tape. Not surprisingly, when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (“GBI”) took over the case, most onlookers saw it as a step in the right direction. The history of the GBI, however, does not inspire confidence, especially when the case involves delivering justice for a Black man.
Nearly 600 Black people were killed in lynchings in Georgia between 1877 and 1950, and multiple observers have chronicled the insidious presence of the Ku Klux Klan at every level of Georgia law enforcement in those years, as well as the lasting impact of that presence in the often toxic relationship between Georgia police and the Black community. The GBI is not free from this taint. Founded in 1937, one of the earliest directors of the GBI was Sam Roper, a local Klan leader who later became its Imperial Wizard. Even after the overt presence of the Klan was removed, the GBI has repeatedly been accused of failing to hold law enforcement accountable for excessive force and for botching cases involving Blacks.
For example, The Washington Post recently found that a GBI investigation cleared a narcotics task force of excessive force in raids that left a reverend dead and an infant in a burn unit, but once the U.S. Justice Department got involved, multiple civil rights violations were brought before a grand jury. Radley Balko, the reporter who wrote the column, concluded that the GBI “probably shouldn’t be trusted to conduct unbiased, thorough investigations of other law enforcement officers.”
The GBI’s record on wrongful convictions is equally disturbing. Two men sent to prison on the basis of GBI testimony have recently been cleared after serving close to 20 years. More troubling is the case of Devonia Inman, a Black man who has been in prison for more than two decades even though the GBI matched DNA from the crime scene to a man who went on to commit at least two other murders and is now serving a life sentence in federal prison.
The GBI got involved in the Ahmaud Arbery case after local police dismissed it, but video of the murder spread on the internet. The two White suspects were connected to local police. One of them, Gregory McMichael, had worked for both the local police department and prosecutor’s office.
Their assertion that Arbery was a suspect in a string of local burglaries and became violent when questioned was accepted by local and county law enforcement. The fact that Arbery had a criminal record was enough to convince them that the killing was justified.
Once the GBI took over, both suspects were arrested, and many observers are cautiously hopeful for two reasons. The first is that the GBI does not have any direct relationship with the suspects, so the conflict of interest that almost certainly swayed local officials is absent. Secondly, GBI’s new director Vic Reynolds had won the public’s confidence by showing a commitment to professionalism and improved race-relations. His awareness, that this investigation is not just about the killing of Arbery but also holding those who tried to cover it up to account, was highlighted at a press conference to announce the arrest of Arbery’s killers. Reynolds assured the public that “this case is an active, ongoing investigation.”
The actions of the GBI and its new director would seem to indicate that they grasp the importance of the moment and how crucial it will be to unequivocally move beyond the Bureau’s troubled past.