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A now-repealed law will weigh on the trial of Ahmaud Arbery's accused killers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Jury selection continues in the trial of three white men charged with murder in Brunswick, Ga. They claimed they'd been trying to make a citizen's arrest of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man shot while jogging in February of last year. Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, said in the many difficult days since her son's death, May 10 was a good day. That's when Georgia repealed its citizen's arrest law.

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WANDA COOPER-JONES: Ahmaud was killed because of hate because he wasn't committing a crime at all. And now we have the repelling of the citizen's arrest law. It's bittersweet that Ahmaud lose his life to get these type of change, but I'm very appreciative of it.

SHAPIRO: That law and others will weigh on this trial. I spoke about it earlier with Joseph Margulies, a law and government professor at Cornell University, starting with the history behind citizen's arrest laws.

JOSEPH MARGULIES: Well, in fact, citizen arrest laws date back in their original form long before the founding of this country, when the police were not widely present. Georgia, like other states, allowed citizens to arrest someone that they suspected reasonably of trying to escape from a felony. And Georgia's law too - or its old law - dates to 1863, and it was basically a catching a fleeing slave law.

SHAPIRO: So it was grounded in racism from the very beginning.

MARGULIES: No question, absolutely. It is a legacy of a racist past.

SHAPIRO: How did the law factor into the behavior of Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory, and their neighbor, William Bryan, who are charged in Arbery's murder?

MARGULIES: Well, the question that the jury will have to consider is whether the McMichaels and Bryan reasonably suspected that Arbery had committed a felony and was trying to escape.

SHAPIRO: And if they did reasonably believe it under the old law, would they have had authority not only to detain him, but to kill him?

MARGULIES: No. See, so that's that's the second piece. Once pursuing him, what happens? And that implicates a different Georgia law, which is still on the books, has not been changed. And that's the stand your ground law, that and the open carry law in Georgia.

SHAPIRO: Do you expect this law to be a prominent part of the defense?

MARGULIES: The combination of all three of them - that is citizen arrest, stand your ground and open carry - are what's going to be at the center of this. Citizen's arrest allowed the McMichaels and Bryan to chase Mr. Arbery. Open carry allowed them to be armed if they had a permit. And stand your ground allowed them to use deadly force if they reasonably - there's that word again - reasonably believed that they were at risk of serious bodily injury or death.

SHAPIRO: You wrote about this for the Boston Review last year, where you said laws like this sanction the predictable murder of innocent Black men so long as the community judges it reasonable. Did Georgia's decision to repeal this law back in May fix the problem?

MARGULIES: It went a long way. They eliminated the right of citizen arrest except for shop owners. That's a much more narrow, much better statute. It's a shame - no, it's more than a shame. It's a moral tragedy that we had to have the death of someone like Ahmaud Arbery before it happened. But yes, it's much better.

SHAPIRO: The death of Trayvon Martin in Florida almost a decade ago raised a national conversation about stand your ground laws, which are much more recent than citizen's arrest laws. Do you see the national conversation happening right now as similar in some ways to that debate almost a decade ago?

MARGULIES: Similar, but also in the sense that it doesn't go far enough. Georgia repealed its citizen's arrest law as a result of the Ahmaud Arbery murder, but there is no move to weaken their stand your ground laws. Those remain on the books in Georgia and elsewhere. And as long as they are in place, you will continue to see avoidable violence on the streets.

SHAPIRO: Joseph Margulies is a professor of law and government at Cornell University. Thanks for speaking with us today.

MARGULIES: Not at all, Ari. Thanks for having me on. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.