Ahmad Arbery was killed by three white racists because of the color of his skin, and he would be alive today if he wasn’t black, a federal hate crimes court said Monday.
“Eventually, the evidence will prove that if Ahmad Arbery had been white, he would have gone for a run, checked out the cool house, and returned home in time for dinner,” said Bobby Bernstein, deputy chief of civil rights. Department of Justice division testified before 12 jurors in opening statements of expected federal hate crime trial of Arbery killers Gregory McMichael, 66, his son Travis, 36, and their friend William “Roddy” Brian Jr., 52 .
The trio had previously been convicted of Arbery’s February 2020 murder in a Georgia court and a federal jury was tasked with deciding whether they also violated their victim’s civil rights by targeting him because of his skin color.
“They made assumptions about Ahmad because of the color of his skin, and this would not have happened. [if] he was white,” she added.
To further emphasize her point, Bernstein said that all three killers have similar stories of making racist comments or using insults in text messages that stunned their friends and colleagues.
In opening statements in the case, defense attorneys acknowledged that each of their clients expressed offensive and unjustified opinions about blacks. But they insisted that the trio’s pursuit of Arbery as he ran through their neighborhood was due to an honest, if misguided, suspicion of crime, not his race.
“I’m not going to ask you to love Travis McMichael,” Amy Lee Copeland, the lawyer for the man who fatally shot Arbery, told jurors. “I’m not going to ask you to decide that he didn’t do anything wrong. But I will ask you to return the acquittal on this indictment.
Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was gunned down in Brunswick, Georgia on February 23, 2020 after going out for a run in the local area.
Travis McMichael (left), his father Gregory McMichael (center), and William “Roddy” Bryan Jr. were convicted of chasing and killing Arbery after the young man ran past their home in Brunswick, Georgia, leading them to think that he robbed them.
McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, armed and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after he ran past their Georgia waterfront home on February 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddy” Bryan, joined the chase in his own truck and recorded a cell phone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery with a shotgun. The arrests only came after the video leaked online two months later.
All three were found guilty of murder and last month a judge sentenced them to life in prison.
Now McMichaels and Brian are back in court, this time in U.S. District Court, where federal prosecutors have charged them with hate crimes alleging they violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was black.
CCTV cameras in a nearby house under construction recorded video of Arbery wandering inside, but taking nothing, several times in the months before his death. White people were also seen entering the house, which had no doors or windows. However, the McMichaels assumed that Arbery must be the culprit and kept looking for him, prosecutor Bobbie Bernstein told the jury.
Bernstein said prosecutors will present evidence of the McMichael and Bryan comments that reveal the mindset that led them to suspect an innocent black man of wrongdoing.
According to her, Travis McMichael once wrote to a friend that he loves his job because “no one works with me.” Commenting on an online video of a black man lighting a firework stuck up his nose, he wrote to a friend, saying, “It would be cooler if it blew a fucking nigga’s head off,” Berenstein said. According to her, the friend was stunned by how angry McMichael got.
One of the allegations, never mentioned in the prosecutor’s opening statement, was that Bryan told investigators that he heard Travis McMichael utter a racial slur after he shot Arbery. The comment was widely publicized after Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Richard Dayal testified about it during a June 2020 statewide murder pretrial hearing.
Lawyers for Travis McMichael denied that he said this, and state prosecutors never mentioned it during the murder trial.
As for Greg McMichael, Berenstein said his former colleague would testify that McMichael reacted angrily in a conversation about the death of civil rights activist Julian Bond in 2015, saying, “These blacks are nothing but trouble.”
Just days before Arbery was shot, Berenstein said, Brian was upset to learn that his daughter was dating a black man. She said that Brian commented that his daughter had her nigga. “
A jury of eight whites, three blacks and one Hispanic were sworn in to hear the case on Monday morning along with four lieutenants. Judge Lisa Godby Wood and lawyers revealed in court the racial composition of the commission.
Lawyers for the McMichaels and Brian admitted that their clients made racially offensive language. But they urged jurors to rule on a hate crime case based on facts, not the raw emotion such words can evoke.
“I heard the N-word more today than I have in the last three or four years, and we haven’t even heard any evidence yet,” Pete Theodokion, Brian’s attorney, told the jury.
Greg McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, said his client initiated the Arbery prosecution not because Arbery was black, but because McMichael recognized him as the man from the security footage as the man who kept entering the neighbour’s unfinished home.
“Greg didn’t know the name, but he recognized the face,” Balbo said. There was no doubt who had just run past him.
Theodokion said that Brian joined the chase, suggesting that Arbery did something wrong because he saw Arbery run past his house and the MacMichaels chased him, yelling for Arbery to stop.
Amy Lee Copeland, Travis McMichael’s attorney, said evidence would show he “was in shock” after shooting Arbery at close range as Arbery was throwing punches and grabbing his gun.
“You won’t hear any evidence that he was clenching his fists, that he was ecstatic,” Copeland said.
The judge said she expects a hate crime trial that will last between seven and 12 days.
In contrast to the federal trial, the jury in the state court in last fall’s murder of three defendants was disproportionately white, prompting objections from prosecutors and complaints from the Arbery family.
A state judge allowed the bench to sit after defense attorneys argued non-racial reasons for excluding most black jurors from the pool.
Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, told reporters outside a courthouse in the port city of Brunswick that he was “very pleased” with the federal jury.