Ahmaud Arbery supporters are celebrating after his conviction on first-degree murder was vacated, but they say there’s “a lot of work to do” to ensure that prosecutors don’t misuse the case and try to land him back in prison.
“He still got his freedom. He got to be a man in our community now,” said Chandra McQueen of Emancipation Coalition, one of a group of local advocates who support Arbery.
In Washington, conviction may never be completely final. District law makes it possible for a judge to reverse his or her finding at any time. There are other reasons why a jury might acquit: the personal views of jurors who vote for or against a person on murder charges; public opinion; inconsistencies or witness misstatements, a lack of a premeditated motive and confusion among jurors; a lack of forensic evidence.
Arbery, 35, was convicted in December 2009 of ordering the shooting of Jermaine Hawkins in a robbery attempt, and of providing the gun that was used in the attack. He is serving a mandatory life sentence. Hawkins was shot in the head during the attack, which came during a drive-by.
Earlier this month, after Arbery’s conviction was overturned, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that prosecutors had improperly introduced into evidence in his 2008 trial evidence of his prior felony convictions on a charge of larceny for stealing gas from a bus station on the Anacostia River. Judges concluded that the fact that Arbery had been convicted of that crime was “no basis for precluding the jury from reaching its verdict based on the evidence it heard in this case.”
In his appeal for reversal, Arbery said that after his 2009 conviction, he received letters, phone calls and face-to-face visits from “hundreds of people.” He said some gave him large sums of money and that people “were willing to take all the time they could to convince” him to murder Hawkins. He said the efforts left him severely “starved for your word, and I tried not to screw up that extra bit to just keep my end of the deal.”
McQueen told the Washington Post that Arbery spent months before his 2009 conviction on “harassing visits” in the hopes of swaying the jury to convict him. She said she did not know exactly how much money the activists provided.
“It was a lot of work,” she said. “On top of having his life taken away, he had to go through all that. And just like we don’t want to see this happen to someone else, we don’t want to see another black person’s life taken away because prosecutors will misuse the law. We are tired of that. And we want a system that works for all of us.”
At a recent town-hall-style meeting in Ward 8, McQueen and other activists urged the public to attend the Friday morning hearing of a D.C. Council subcommittee considering Arbery’s case. They urged Council members to ensure that Arbery receives a fair trial when he makes his next court appearance, slated for Oct. 24.
Many of Arbery’s supporters say they were upset at a judge’s decision earlier this year to set aside his conviction because they felt it violated rules of jury conduct.
They felt they hadn’t been given enough time to raise the issue, however, and asked the D.C. Council for an emergency request for an en banc rehearing, which the D.C. Court of Appeals denied.
His lawyer, Madison Allen, now hopes to revive the appeal, this time taking more time. He said it may take several months before he knows if it will move forward.
“We want to really take a hard look at it and consider how to proceed,” he said.