Opening arguments in the trial over Ahmaud Arbery's killing began Friday morning, with Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan facing murder charges.
Prosecutors are urging jurors to convict the three white men of several felonies, saying they chased Arbery, a Black man, through a neighborhood in Glynn County, Ga., and shot him to death with a shotgun.
The defense says Travis McMichael shot Arbery three times in self-defense, as the McMichaels and Bryan attempted to conduct a citizen's arrest of Arbery under their suspicion that he might have stolen something from an under-construction house.
Arbery, 25, was killed on Feb. 23, 2020, after he was seen running on a street in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, in what his family calls a modern-day lynching. The case has fueled intense protests over racial inequality in the U.S., with key details emerging in the weeks before George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.
It took nearly three weeks to select a jury for the trial. The 12-person panel includes 11 white people and one Black person, despite Black potential jurors making up one fourth of the final pool. The jury also has four alternates. The trial is expected to last around two weeks.
A grand jury indicted Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan on nine criminal counts in Georgia state court, including felony murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
The June, 2020, indictment accuses the men of using their pickup trucks to chase and assault Arbery before using a 12-gauge shotgun to shoot and kill him.
Gregory McMichael, 65, worked in law enforcement for decades, including a long stint as an investigator for the district attorney's office in Brunswick. After spotting Arbery, McMichael later told police, he grabbed his .357 Magnum pistol and told his son, "Travis the guy is running down the street let's go."
Travis McMichael, 35, shot and killed Arbery with a 12-gauge shotgun after chasing him in his Ford F-150 pickup. He is a former member of the Coast Guard.
William "Roddie" Bryan, 52, is the neighbor who jumped into his Chevrolet Silverado pickup to help chase Arbery. He used his cellphone to record video of the final moments of the confrontation.
Ten weeks passed between Arbery's death and the first arrests in the case, after a video of the killing became public.
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski began her opening statement by telling the jury that all three of the defendants made decisions in their driveways, based on "assumptions — not on facts, not on evidence." Those decisions resulted in Arbery losing his life, she added.
Dunikoski says Arbery lived with his mother. "He was also a brother, he was an uncle — and he was also an avid runner," she added. She said the jury will see photos of Arbery's shoes, with the treads nearly worn off.
After showing aerial photos of Satilla Shores, Dunikoski focused on 220 Satilla Drive — "an open, unsecured construction site" for a house owned by Larry English — who, she told the jury, lived two hours away and barely knew the McMichaels.
Dunikoski said nothing was stolen from the site in 2019 or 2020. But in late 2019, she added, English realized some items were missing from inside his boat nearby. He set up motion-activated surveillance cameras, and while Arbery was seen wandering around inside the house several times, he never took anything, Dunikoski said. Instead, it was a white couple who were seen carrying a bag at the property that aroused English's suspicions, she said.
But on Feb. 23, 2020, "Greg McMichael assumed the worst" after he saw Arbery "hauling a**" down the street away from English's house, Dunikoski said. He quickly ran inside to get his pistol and alert his son, who grabbed his shotgun and jumped into his truck. Greg McMichael rode in the cab, straddling his grandson's car seat, she added.
"This case is about duty and responsibility," said defense attorney Robert Rubin, who represents Travis McMichael. "It's about Travis McMichael's duty and responsibility to himself, to his family, and to his neighborhood."
Rubin says that from 2007 to 2016, Travis McMichael was "a boarding officer in the Coast Guard, which means he was authorized to make arrests. He was authorized to do investigations. He was authorized to do searches. He was authorized to use his weapon when appropriate."
Travis McMichael was trained in law enforcement concepts such as probable cause and the use of force, Rubin said. He added that the training went beyond the classroom to focus on actual scenarios.
"It is repetitive training, so that if you're ever in a real-life situation where you need to make use-of-force decisions, you're relying ... on muscle memory because those split seconds are often the difference between life and death," Rubin said.
Rubin portrayed Satilla Shores as an idyllic place, a neighborhood perfect for kids. At the time Arbery died, Travis McMichael and his young son were living there with his mom and his father.
"This is the family and community that made him willing to put himself at risk to help the police detain Ahmaud Arbery," Rubin said.
The video of the pursuit of Arbery doesn't tell the whole story, Rubin said, because in 2019, the neighborhood started seeing a rise in property crime.
"As a result of this uptick in crime, of people being on edge, people were alert to suspicious behavior" — including setting up surveillance cameras, Rubin said. He went on to describe Larry English's attempts to stop people from going into his under-construction house. Cameras spotted Arbery at the property four times over the course of several months, he said.
When the McMichaels started to chase Arbery, neither man called 911 immediately. It was a different neighbor who lived nearby who first did that, after seeing Arbery leave the English house, Dunikoski said. As the McMichaels chased and shouted at Arbery from their truck, Bryan saw them and joined the chase.
"At this point in time, Mr. Arbery is under attack" by all three men, as they repeatedly drove their trucks at him, Dunikoski said. They got so close, she added, that Arbery's hand print was found on Bryan's truck, along with fibers from his T-shirt.
"Mr. Arbery ran away from them for five minutes," Dunikoski said.
She said Greg McMichael told police that he had yelled at Arbery, "Stop, or I'll blow your f***ing head off!"
She then played the cellphone video Bryan recorded of the incident, culminating in Arbery being shot at close range after a struggle with Travis McMichael. The footage showed that Travis McMichael blocked the street with his truck and got out with his shotgun, then moved around his truck to raise his weapon and confront Arbery, Dunikoski said.
Greg McMichael called 911 moments before the fatal shot was fired. Playing audio of that call in court, Dunikoski said the emergency McMichael cited to the dispatcher was that a Black man was running down the street — not that he had committed a crime.
None of the defendants told Arbery they wanted to place him under citizen's arrest, Dunikoski said, adding that they had "no immediate knowledge of any crime" Arbery might have committed. She said Greg McMichael also assumed — wrongly, it turned out — that Arbery was probably armed. The prosecutor said Arbery wasn't carrying anything, not even his keys or a cellphone.
Describing a circumstance she called "truly, truly tragic," Dunikoski said that by the time the shots rang out, the officer who was dispatched by the initial 911 call had already arrived in the neighborhood. He was driving slowly through the area, looking for suspicious activity, when he heard the gunshots, she said.
Prosecutors won two victories the day before opening arguments began, with Judge Timothy Walmsley largely siding with their views on evidence that will be allowed in court. Here's a quick rundown:
Toxicology reports on Arbery: Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski says they're irrelevant, as Arbery had zero blood alcohol content. She said a follow-up screening for prescription drugs found a "minute" amount of THC, the psychoactive agent in cannabis.
Defense attorney Jason Sheffield said Arbery was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2018, and he wants an expert to testify whether that, in combination with THC, could make someone aggressive or combative. The judge has already ruled Arbery's mental health history won't be part of the trial; he says the traces of THC won't either.
Officer body-cam video: The McMichaels' attorneys sought to block what they called "inflammatory" portions of video from an officer's body-worn camera. The footage, from the second officer who arrived at the scene, includes a close-up view of Arbery's body as he lay on the ground after being shot.
Prosecutors responded by saying that the images are "real" — that they accurately show what happened. The judge ruled the full video will be included in the trial. He added that anyone who needs to leave the courtroom during the moments when it's shown should feel free to do so.
Arbery's probation status: The judge also granted the state's motion not to include information about Arbery's probation status. The defense had said it wanted to introduce that as a possible reason why Arbery would want to flee.
License plate: In another ruling, the judge denied the defense's attempt to suppress images of the vanity license plate on the front of Travis McMichael's truck, which depicts the former Georgia state flag — a banner that was replaced in the early 2000s because it evoked Confederate imagery.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley is presiding over the trial at the Glynn County Courthouse. The Eastern Judicial Circuit judge was given the case after all five judges in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit recused themselves. Walmsley was appointed to the bench in February of 2012.
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski is the senior assistant district attorney in Cobb County, outside of Atlanta. She was put in charge of the case in April, after two local prosecutors recused themselves.
Defense attorney Kevin Gough of Brunswick has represented Bryan since his arrest. Attorney Jessica Burton of Atlanta is also on Bryan's defense team.
Defense attorneys Robert Rubin and Jason Sheffield represent Travis McMichael. They're from the same Atlanta-area law firm.
Defense attorneys Laura and Franklin Hogue, who are married, represent Greg McMichael. They're based in Macon, Ga., where they've handled numerous death-penalty cases in the past.
Along with the state charges, a federal grand jury indicted the McMichaels and Bryan on hate crime charges in April.
The federal charges also include the attempted kidnapping of Arbery, and the McMichaels are charged with using firearms during a violent crime. A February trial date has been slated for those charges.
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