(BRUNSWICK, Ga.) — In a state that didn’t have a hate-crime law until this year and where vigilante citizens’ arrests were sometimes permitted by the government, three white men are set to go on trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man prosecutors allege was “hunted down and ultimately executed” while out for a Sunday jog.
Jury selection begins on Monday in the high-profile case that sparked nationwide protests and sent Georgia lawmakers scrambling to rewrite the state’s statutes. Legal experts say they expect the graphic details of how the 25-year-old Arbery was gunned down to be intertwined with Georgia’s long history of racial unrest.
Lee Merritt and Benjamin Crump, the Arbery family attorneys, have called the killing a “modern-day lynching” and said the accused are now trying to use Georgia’s laws at the time of Arbery’s death to defend their actions.
“There’s some segment of that community that believes what they did was a good thing. That’s not a fringe opinion. That defense is what their lawyers are hanging their hat on,” Merritt told ABC News.
The three defendants are Gregory McMichael, 65, a retired police officer, his son, Travis McMichael, 35, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, 52.
“Just to think about what I have to go through in the midst of the trial … it’s really scary,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told ABC News. “Some days I have my doubts of getting justice for Ahmaud.”
On Saturday, dozens of protesters rallied in front of the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia, to demand justice for Arbery’s family.
The defendants are not facing state hate crime charges because at the time of Arbery’s killing Georgia was one of just four states that didn’t have such a law. Upon signing Georgia’s new hate-crime law in June, Gov. Brian Kemp cited the Arbery case, saying, “We saw injustice with our own eyes.”
The McMichaels have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and aggravated assault. Bryan has also pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
The three men were also indicted on federal hate crime charges in April and have all pleaded not guilty.
According to court documents and evidence presented at previous hearings, the men plan to invoke Georgia’s “citizen’s arrest” statute as a defense, a pre-Civil War-era law that was repealed in May primarily due to the Arbery killing. Kemp called the measure an “antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”
“The remarkable part of this is that the case that caused the law to change is the one that’s now being tried. That doesn’t happen very often, if ever,” Ronald Carlson, a law professor emeritus at the University of Georgia Law School, told ABC News.
Attorneys for the McMichaels filed a motion this week asking a judge to allow the jury to hear that at the time of his death Arbery was on probation. In an angry response, Crump said the request is a last-minute “attempt to assassinate the character of Ahmaud Arbery.”
“The family and our legal team have faith that the court will see through this tactic and deliver Ahmaud and his family justice,” Crump said. “If these killers get off without consequence that sends a message that lynching Black men in 2021 carries no penalty.”
A large jury pool
Brian Buckmire, a homicide public defender in Brooklyn, New York, and an ABC News contributor, said despite the large jury pool he believes “it’s going to be extremely difficult” to find 12 impartial people plus alternates to serve on the panel.
“It’s going to be on the tip of their tongues and in the back of their heads,” said Buckmire, who is also an anchor for the Law & Crime Network. “I think it’s going to be hard to find someone who already hasn’t come up with a conclusion to this case.”
Since Arbery’s killing in February 2020, the case has frequently been in the national spotlight as protesters took to the streets for days to demand the suspects be arrested and as two district attorneys recused themselves.
Former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, the first prosecutor to get the case and who once had a working relationship with Gregory McMichael, was indicted in September on a felony count of violating her oath of office by allegedly “showing favor and affection” to Gregory McMichael and a misdemeanor count of hindering a law enforcement officer. Johnson, who lost a reelection bid in November 2020, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Bombshell video and racial slur
Travis and Gregory McMichael were arrested on May 7, 2020, more than two months after Arbery’s death. They were charged with murder when a cellphone video surfaced showing them blocking Arbery’s path with their pickup truck on a street in their Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick.
The footage shows Arbery attempting to go around the McMichaels’ parked vehicle only to run into Travis McMichael. The video shows the two men fighting and Travis McMichael firing the first shotgun blast, hitting Arbery in the chest, his white T-shirt immediately seen soaked in blood. He attempted to run but collapsed and died at the scene, the video shows.
An autopsy found that Arbery was shot two additional times, once in the upper left chest and in the right wrist, authorities said.
Bryan, who took the video as he drove up on the scene in his truck, was arrested about two weeks after Travis and Gregory McMichael.
“That’s going to be the star of the show and it will be shown more than once,” Carlson said of the video. “I would say, Rodney King, George Floyd and the Arbery videos are three of the most key pieces of criminal case demonstrative evidence that we’ve ever seen.”
The video was played at a preliminary hearing in June 2020, a proceeding that resulted in a judge ordering the three defendants to stand trial for murder.
Afternoon jog turns deadly
Arbery was out for a Sunday afternoon jog on Feb. 23, 2020, through the mostly-white Satilla Shores neighborhood when he stopped and went into a house under construction, according to evidence presented at the preliminary hearing. A surveillance video showed Arbery, who lived in another neighborhood of Brunswick, inside the unsecured house looking around and leaving empty-handed.
Arbery continued jogging past the McMichaels’ home, where Gregory McMichael spotted him and believed he matched the description of a burglary suspect seen on a surveillance video posted online by his neighborhood association, according to his lawyer.
Investigators allege that Gregory McMichael and his son armed themselves and chased after Arbery in their pickup truck. Bryan allegedly joined the pursuit and, according to prosecutors, attempted to use his truck to block Arbery’s path.
During the June preliminary hearing, Richard Dial, a special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, testified that Bryan told investigators that he heard Travis McMichael yell a racial slur to Arbery as he lay dying on the ground.
Travis McMichael contends he shot Arbery in self-defense.
In an attempt to allege Arbery had a propensity to be aggressive when confronted by law enforcement, defense attorneys motioned to get Arbery’s past run-ins with police and a 2018 mental health diagnosis indicating he may have suffered from schizoaffective disorder presented to the jury. Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walmsley, who was appointed to preside over the Glynn County trial, rejected both requests deeming them irrelevant to the case.
Carlson said the trial judge might seek to strike a balance and not allow prosecutors to introduce racist messages they allege Travis McMichael texted to friends or his vanity license plate of the Confederate flag.
“The judge will, of course, work very hard to try to make sure that the racial aspect of the case, racial animus, racial dislike does not play a huge role in emotionalizing the case,” Carlson said. “But it’s certainly not helpful to the defense.”
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