Questions for Missouri from Georgia


The criminal case for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia had a personal impact on me.

Like Arbery, I often walk briskly in nearby neighborhoods. Although I must confess that at my advanced age, I’m not jogging.

Also like Arbery, I have wandered into an uninhabited construction site, but only if there was not a no-trespassing sign.

Similar to the video of Arbery, my only purpose was curiosity for a brief examination about the progress of the construction. Finally, like the defense attorney argued about the victim, I have worn shorts during those walks.

Further, I’m sure at times I’ve walked in my sandals with “long, dirty toenails” as the defense lawyer told the jurors. But I never feared being arrested, much less being murdered.

A major reason may be that unlike Arbery, I am white like the residents in the neighborhoods where I walk and many of our neighbors know me and my wife, who sometimes joins me in our walks.

Yet, the Arbery murder has caused me to wonder what could have been the reaction if I were Black, running, alone and a stranger to the neighbors.

In defense of my town, I don’t believe my race would be an issue.

Living in one of the smallest state Capitals in a city with a university founded by Black Civil War solders, Lincoln University, I have not sensed the level of racial hostility that might have contributed to Arbery’s murder. The Georgia case also raised thoughts about Missouri’s “citizen’s arrest” law.

Missouri’s law authorizes a “citizen’s arrest” by a private person that includes the right to use “deadly force” if the person being arrested committed a serious-level felony crime or murder if “he or she reasonably believes such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to arrest a person.”

After the Georgia incident, I’ve wondered if a citizen’s arrest law could encourage a Missourian to commit murder without fully understanding the legal limitations.

That is not as absurd question as you might think.

In 1981 when one or more persons in Skidmore, Mo., shot to death a man described as the “town bully” after the numerous times his lawyers got him out of criminal charges for assault and other felony crimes.

It obviously was far outside the citizen’s arrest law, but it was an indication of support from some for taking the law into their own hands when nobody in the community would identify the killers despite the execution occurring inside the town with numerous witnesses.

Georgia, in the aftermath of Arbery’s murder, substantially restricted its citizen arrest law.

Missouri, like Georgia, also has a “felony murder” crime for participating in a criminal action that results in murder.

It was Georgia’s felony murder law that allowed the murder charges and a jury verdict against two of the three Arbery defendants who did not actually fire the shotgun blasts that killed Arbery.

In Missouri, the felony murder law makes a partner in a criminal action subject to a murder charge even if the criminal partner did not participate in the actual murder.

That legal concept of felony murder goes back to British common law.

My questions about the “felony murder” provision began decades ago from various felony murder decisions in my home state of California.

My question was why should the driver who drove a passenger to a robbery be subject to a murder conviction if the driver had no idea the passenger was going to kill a shop attendant.

On the other hand, should not the participants in what amounts to a lynching be held accountable for the lethal outcome?

The Arbery case has revived my mental debate.

A couple of years ago, California substantially restricted when a felony murder charge can be filed.

The citizen arrest’s law and the felony murder law could be fascinating issues for Missouri’s legislature to take up in the next session of the state’s General Assembly.

(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).


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