Ahmaud Arbery and Kyle Rittenhouse cases: ‘Reasonable suspicion’ is tied to race and place in America

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Caleigh Wells and Nihar Patel

Closing arguments began today in the trial against the three white men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, in Brunswick, Georgia. Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan argued they acted in self-defense in February 2020. They pursued Arbery in their pickup trucks when he was out jogging. The defendants’ lawyers argued that they had a right to stop Arbery under Georgia’s citizen's arrest law from 1863. The law was repealed after Arbery’s killing. 

Loyola Law professor Jessica Levinson explains, “There’s really a two-step argument here. The first is well under the … citizen’s arrest law, if you have … a reasonable suspicion that a felony occurred and there aren’t police officers or other law enforcement officers around, then you … are empowered to effectuate the citizen’s arrest. Step two for the argument … is this idea of self-defense, that once they started the citizen’s arrest, it then started this chain of events where Arbery  reached for his waistband, and they in fact feared for their own safety, and they had to use that force.”

It’s important to remember that the state has now changed both of these laws, but the U.S. uses laws that were in place when the alleged crimes happened, she notes. 

Michael Harriot, senior writer at The Root, says the idea of reasonableness is subjective and based on race and where you live in America. “Research shows us … the average white person sees Black men as bigger and stronger than they are in reality, they see them as older, they see them as more dangerous. And 65% of the criminals that are played on TV are played by Black men, even though that Black men are only 35% of what they call gangsters. So there's everything in society that reinforces this idea of a scary Black person.”

Meanwhile on Friday, Kyle Rittenhouse, a young white man, was acquitted on all charges, including first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree recklessly endangering safety. He shot three white men last year, killing two of them and injuring the third, during an anti-police brutality protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse argued that he fired in self-defense after the men attacked him.

“Both trials are playing out against this backdrop of … our reckoning with injustices in the criminal justice system, with what it means to allow self-defense laws, with what it means to empower people to potentially be vigilantes,” says Levinson. “But outside of that, of course, I do think it's important to remember two different states, two different laws, two very different factual situations. And I am not at all ready to say because we had one outcome in Rittenhouse, we're going to have another outcome here. … Hopefully that is not the case that we can't draw a line from one to another.”