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Today marks the first day of the federal hate crimes trial on the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The trial will focus on whether the killing was racially motivated and if Arbery’s civil rights were violated by the defendants. Last week, a judge rejected a proposed plea deal, opposed by Arbery’s family, which would have let two of the defendants serve at least part of their sentence in a preferred federal prison.

Federal hate crimes trials are rare. Data on hate crime incidents is often incomplete and incidents are underreported for several reasons including fear and lack of trust in law enforcement. According to an October report by the Southern Poverty Law Center “in 2020, the FBI documented 8,263 hate crimes, reported by more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies across the country. However, according to national surveys conducted by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), almost 250,000 hate crimes occurred each year between 2005 and 2019. The BJS bases the estimate not on the UCR data collected from law enforcement agencies but rather on its annual National Crime Victimization Survey, which samples about 95,000 households.”

According to the Department of Justice, there is a significant disparity between hate crimes that actually occur and those reported to law enforcement. Hate crimes are often committed against communities with lower trust in law enforcement and the designation of a crime as such requires law enforcement to agree that the crime was hate motivated. There is more work to do to allow survivors of hate crimes to feel confident and supported enough to report these crimes. A full accounting of hate crimes would allow communities, law enforcement, and survivors to fully understand the scope of the problem in a community and put resources toward preventing and addressing attacks based on bias and hate, according to the Department of Justice

In April 2021, the Justice Department charged the three defendants with hate crimes and the attempted kidnapping of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year old Black man. All three defendants are alleged to have a history of  using racial slurs – including immediately after shooting Arbery. In the state trial, several of the witnesses used the defendants’ having Black friends to push back against the supposition that racism motivated the incident. Witnesses also alleged that an infamous text from one of the defendants referring to “crackhead…with gold teeth” was referring to raccoons – not Black people.  

During the initial state trial in November, the defendants tried to use a so-called “Stand Your Ground” or “Shoot First” defense, invoking a law that allows individuals to shoot and kill in public even if they can safely walk away. Though the 12-person jury deciding the case was composed of 11 white jurors and 1 Black juror, a composition that did not reflect the county’s population, which is more than 25% Black, the defendants were found guilty on multiple murder counts and other charges.  

Last session, lawmakers in Georgia repealed the state’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law, which was historically used to publicly dehumanize escaped enslaved people and justify the lynching of Black people. This session, lawmakers are working to repeal Georgia’s ‘Shoot First’ law, among a category of laws allowing those who shoot others to obtain immunity and are associated with more than 150 additional gun deaths nationally every month. In Florida, studies show that homicide rates increased 24 to 45% after its ‘Shoot First’ law was enacted in 2005. Additionally, in ‘Shoot First’ states, homicides in which white shooters kill Black victims are deemed justifiable five times more frequently than when the situation is reversed. Mayors across Georgia have called on the state to repeal this deadly law.

More information about ‘Shoot First’ laws is available here.