Are Ahmaud Arbery’s killers merely murderers, or are they racist murderers?

That’s the essential question that the jury in the federal hate crimes case that got underway Monday will have to answer over the next two weeks. 

Although plenty of people in Glynn County and Brunswick, including Ahmaud Arbery’s family, believe this should be an open-and-shut case, the bar is high for the federal prosecutors leading the case against Travis and Greg McMichael and their former neighbor from Satilla Shores, William “Roddie” Bryan to prove this fact beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jury impaneled to hear testimony at the federal courthouse on Gloucester Street in downtown Brunswick are citizens who come from all 43 counties which comprise the U.S. Southern District of Georgia, from Augusta to Dublin to Richmond Hill. The 12 jury members include 8 whites, 3 Blacks and 1 Hispanic. 

Another four jurors are alternates, people who will be able to determine guilt or innocence should members of the 12-person panel fall sick or be excused for other reasons during the trial, which is expected to last 7 to 12 days.

All three defendants 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. Each man has pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution was quick to lay out its case, pointing to private communications and often repeated views each of the three defendants had toward Black people, a pattern of behavior, language and opinion that even each man’s defense counsel conceded to the jury was “reprehensible.”

Bobbi Bernstein, a government prosecutor who works at the Department of Justice Civil Rights division, laid out some of the evidence of the men’s alleged racist thinking in her 30-minute opening statement Monday afternoon.

She said Travis McMichael referred to Black people as “animals,” “criminals,” “monkeys,” “subhuman savages” and “niggers.” 

Bernstein also described a time that Gregory McMichael described his animosity toward Georgia’s revered civil rights leader Julian Bond. When told of Bond’s death, he told a person that he was glad Bond had died, because he, like all Blacks, were “troublemakers.” That witness will be presented in court later in the trial.

As for Bryan, the prosecutor said that his racial animus was expressed clearly in the days leading up to the violent and fatal chase of Arbery as he jogged through Satilla Shores on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan had recently learned that his daughter was dating a Black man, someone Bryan referred to as a “monkey.” 

Each of the three men’s defense lawyers focused their opening statements by admitting to their clients’ embarrassing language and views and distancing themselves from that behavior. 

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.

Both the prosecutors and defense attorneys also said that though racist slurs and language was reprehensible, it was not illegal — a consensus that points to the difficulty in reaching guilty verdicts in hate crimes cases across America.

Less than 1% of all reported hate crimes make it to trial, and an even smaller number result in a conviction. That’s in large part because of the difficulty proving to juries that racism was the prime motive for violence or murder, according to criminal justice experts.

The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.