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Jury finds Ahmaud Arbery's killers guilty on hate crime charges

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The government won a guilty verdict today in a federal hate crimes case considered a touchpoint for racial justice. Three white men were convicted of violating Ahmaud Arbery's civil rights two years ago when they chased him down with a pickup truck on a residential street outside Brunswick, Ga., and murdered him. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the defendants' actions and the racism that fueled them inflicted enduring trauma.

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MERRICK GARLAND: No one should fear that if they go out for a run, they will be targeted and killed because of the color of their skin.

CHANG: NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now. And just to note that her reporting contains details of racist actions.

Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So can you just first tell us exactly what today's conviction was for?

ELLIOTT: It was for the racist motivation behind this crime. You know, the jury found the defendants, father and son, Greg and Travis McMichael, and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, guilty of all of the hate crime charges they faced, including violating Ahmaud Arbery's right to use a public street because of his race and attempted kidnapping. They were convicted on state murder charges last year.

But this trial - that trial did not get into any evidence of racial animosity, and this one did, in very ugly detail I might add. Federal prosecutors showed how these men harbored racial resentment for years and how they acted on these vile racist beliefs when they chased Ahmaud Arbery with their pickup trucks as he tried to evade them for five full minutes and killed him once he was trapped. Prosecutors say they never looked at Ahmaud Arbery as a fellow human.

CHANG: A fellow human. Well, what has been the reaction so far to this verdict today?

ELLIOTT: You know, outside the courthouse, Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, said she was thankful that the jurors were willing to consider all the offensive evidence.

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WANDA COOPER JONES: I do appreciate that they took the time out of their busy schedules to come out and listen to nonsense because the way Ahmaud left here was pure nonsense.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: That's right.

JONES: Senseless.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: That's right.

JONES: But I appreciate their time. And they gave us a sense of a small victory, but we as a family will never get victory because Ahmaud is gone forever.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Come on.

ELLIOTT: A small victory. She also emphasized that the trial and verdict only came after the family fought a proposed plea deal before this trial. She still seemed angry that the Justice Department had agreed to do that.

CHANG: Well, you know, these kinds of federal hate crimes prosecutions are rare. So I'm curious, Debbie, how do you think today's verdict could impact similar prosecutions in the future?

ELLIOTT: You know, racial justice advocates hope it will embolden federal prosecutors. A Justice Department report last year found that the government declined to prosecute 82% of people investigated for hate crimes over the last two decades. There's a perception that proving racist intent is a high bar because it forces jurors to confront their own racial bias. Indiana University law professor Jeannine Bell says successful prosecutions are worth the risk.

JEANNINE BELL: This may be a unique space. This may be a moment where we're starting to interrogate some of our choices.

ELLIOTT: You know, attorney - Al Sharpton called the Georgia verdict today precedent-setting, said it should send a signal that you can win convictions for racially motivated crimes. And, you know, we should note that right now, a Minneapolis federal jury is hearing a hate crimes case against three police officers in George Floyd's case. They're accused of violating his civil rights.

CHANG: Exactly. Exactly. Well, you know, tomorrow marks two years since Arbery was murdered. And Debbie, as you've been talking to people in Brunswick, what have you heard about what this verdict symbolizes to them at this moment?

ELLIOTT: I think there's a sense of validation for people who've been saying all along this was a racially motivated crime. Some, including his father, Marcus Arbery, have called it a modern-day lynching.

Remember, Arbery's killing was not even investigated until damning cellphone video was released months later. That led to a racial reckoning that has resulted in some real change. You know, the state of Georgia repealed its citizens arrest statute and passed a hate crimes law. And that DA who declined to prosecute is now charged in a cover up.

CHANG: That is NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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