(BRUNSWICK, Ga.) — A jury was seated and opening statements got underway Monday in the federal hate crimes trial of three white Georgia men stemming from the murder of Ahmaud Arbery a 25-year-old Black man who was out for a jog in 2020 when he was chased and gunned down.
The 16 jurors, including four alternates, were empaneled on Monday morning following a lengthy selection process that started on Feb. 7. The jury is comprised of eight whites, three Blacks and one Hispanic. Alternates are three white members and one Pacific Islander.
Opening statements in the high profile case against 64-year-old retired police officer Gregory McMichael, his 36-year-old son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, commenced on Monday afternoon.
Prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein began her presentation by apologizing to the jury for having to read to them racial slurs and descriptions she said Travis McMichael used in text messages and on social media to describe Black people. Bernstein told the jury they will hear evidence that all three men used racially-charged language when discussing Black people in private.
Bernstein also said she will present evidence that Bryan told investigators that after Travis McMichael shot Arbery he allegedly heard him yell a racist epithet at the victim as he lay dying on the pavement, evidence that was excluded from the defendants’ state trial in which they were all convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Bernstein told the panel that while it is not illegal to use racial slurs, “these slurs can provide you with evidence as to why a defendant did what he did.”
She told the jurors that if Arbery had been white, “he would have been home in time for Sunday dinner.” Instead, she said, Arbery spent his last moments of life “bleeding to death, alone and scared in the middle of the street.”
Defense attorney Amy Lee Copeland attempted to distance herself from her client, Travis McMichael, conceding in her opening statement that the younger McMichael left a digital footprint of using “words that I don’t use and has opinions I don’t share.”
“But these words are not a crime,” Copeland said.
Gregory McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, said his client was not “an angel,” but was also not a racist. Balbo said Arbery was not followed because he was a Black man, but because he was “the man” the McMichaels recognized in security videos trespassing at a neighbor’s home that was under construction.”
“The killing of Ahmaud Arbery was a tragic and horrible event that didn’t need to happen and could have been prevented in so many ways,” Balbo told the jury.
Bryan’s attorney, Pete Theodocion, painted his client as someone who doesn’t look at people through a racial prism, saying there is no excuse for racism. He asked the jury not to look at evidence against the other defendants and use it against Bryan.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia, is expected to last seven to 10 days.
All three men are charged with one count of interference with Arbery’s civil rights and with one count of attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels were also charged with one count each of using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm, and Travis McMichael faces an additional count of discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
If convicted, the men face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The McMichaels and Bryan were convicted last year on state murder charges in Arbery’s death. They were all sentenced to life in prison.
Arbery was fatally shot after the McMichaels saw him jogging in their Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia. They said they assumed Arbery was a burglar, armed themselves and chased him in their pickup truck. The McMichaels’ neighbor, Bryan, joined the pursuit, blocking the victim’s escape path with his truck and recorded video on a cellphone of Travis McMichael fatally shooting Arbery three times with a shotgun during a struggle.
If convicted in the federal case, the men must first serve their state sentences before being transferred to federal prison.
In the now-defunct plea deal filed with the court on Jan. 30, Gregory and Travis McMichael agreed to plead guilty to count one of an indictment alleging they interfered with Arbery’s right to enjoy the use of a public road he was jogging on “because of Arbery’s race and color.”
In exchange for the guilty pleas, prosecutors were to dismiss the other charges and allow the McMichaels to serve the first 30 years of confinement in federal prison before being transferred back to the Georgia Department of Corrections to serve out the remainder of their state sentences.
The same plea agreement was not given to Bryan.
Judge Lisa Wood rejected the McMichaels’ plea deal after Arbery’s parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery, strongly objected and claimed it was forged without their consent. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement that prosecutors were in constant communication with the Arbery family’s attorneys and had been assured the family would not object to the agreement.
Wood claimed she turned down the deal because it would have locked her into the three-decade federal prison sentence, saying she didn’t know if that was “the precise, fair sentence in this case.”
Following Wood’s decision, Gregory and Travis McMichael, who are being represented by court-appointed public defenders due to financial hardship, withdrew their guilty pleas and opted to go to trial.
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