Hate crimes trial begins for men who killed Ahmaud Arbery

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Prosecutors and defense attorneys delivered their opening statements Monday in the federal hate crimes trial of three white men previously convicted of murdering Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020.

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Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, face charges including interference with rights and attempted kidnapping in connection with Arbery’s death. In an indictment filed last year in court, a grand jury accused the trio of injuring, intimidating and interfering with Arbery “because of Arbery’s race and color.”

Jurors in Georgia previously convicted the three men of felony murder and other charges in Arbery’s death.

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In her opening statement, prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein told jurors that they did not need to hear proof of hate on the part of the defendants to reach a guilty verdict, The Washington Post reported.

“What it requires is proof the defendants acted because of race … meaning in this case, the defendants made assumptions about Ahmaud based on the color of his skin, chased him down and (threatened) and (tried) to catch him themselves, and that wouldn’t have happened if he was white,” she said, according to the Post. “That’s exactly what the evidence shows.”

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Attorneys for the McMichaels acknowledged that jurors would hear evidence that showed the father and son used racial epithets over the years. However, they said their clients were motivated not by race on Feb. 23, 2020, but by the fact that they had seen Arbery in a neighbor’s home while it was under construction and suspected him of burglary.

“At this end of this case, I’m not going to ask you to like Travis McMichael,” his attorney, Amy Copeland, said. “I’m not going to ask you to determine he’s done nothing wrong. I’m going to ask you to return a verdict of not guilty on all counts.”

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Bryan’s attorney, Pete Theodocion, said that his client was not motivated by race but that he instead joined the chase of Arbery because he heard his neighbors yelling for the 25-year-old to stop and that, based on that, he assumed Arbery had done something wrong.

A jury consisting of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person was seated earlier Monday, WJAX-TV reported. Four alternate jurors were also chosen, according to WJAX, three who are white and one who is Pacific Islander.

Outside the courthouse, Arbery’s father told reporters that he was “very pleased” by the makeup of the jury, according to The Associated Press.

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In state court, defense attorneys said the McMichaels and Bryan suspected Arbery of burglary and chased after him in an attempt to hold him under a citizen’s arrest. On the stand, Travis McMichael claimed he shot Arbery in self-defense as they struggled over Travis McMichael’s shotgun.

Prosecutors argued that the McMichaels were practicing vigilante justice and that Arbery had no obligation to stop for the men, who had gotten in a pair of pickup trucks to chase him as he jogged through Brunswick’s Satilla Shores neighborhood.

The McMichaels later received life sentences without the possibility of parole, while Bryan was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Last month, the McMichaels said they wanted to plead guilty to one count each of interference with rights as part of a plea deal reached with federal prosecutors. However, Judge Lisa Wood rejected the deal after Arbery’s family members spoke out against the agreement in court.

The McMichaels subsequently withdrew their guilty pleas.

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If convicted of the most serious charges against them, the McMichaels and Bryan face maximum sentences of life in prison.

Authorities brought charges against the McMichaels and Bryan months after Arbery was shot and killed on Feb. 23, 2020, amid public outcry after graphic footage of the shooting appeared online. In September, a grand jury indicted former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson on charges related to the handling of the case.