Prosecutors in the federal hate crimes case against Ahmaud Arbery’s three murderers spent 4½ days this week putting jarring and horrifying facts into the public record:
- Jurors heard a witness testify that defendant Greg McMichael once referred to an African American woman as a “walrus” and that upon the death of Julian Bond, Georgia’s venerated Civil Rights leader, McMichael remarked that the former legislator and other Black leaders were “troublemakers” who deserved to be “put in the ground.” Those remarks came while Greg was working as an investigator for the District Attorney’s office.
- Jurors also heard a White woman testify Friday that Travis McMichael often belittled her with crude language and racist slurs because she had once dated a Black man. They also saw photos of a Confederate flag sticker in a utility box on Travis’s truck, the vehicle he and his father used to chase Arbery on the day they killed him. And they read comments Travis made on Facebook about shooting Black protestors and Black people.
- Finally, jurors heard and read years of text messages between William “Roddie” Bryan and his close friends in which they routinely denigrated Black people, accusing them of criminality, laziness and deceit. When he learned that his daughter was dating a Black man he wrote that she “doesn’t have respect for herself.”
At approximately 1:40 pm Friday, the government rested its case, convinced that they had proved beyond any reasonable doubt that these three former Glynn County residents were guilty of the multiple federal charges they face.
Travis, 36, his father Greg, 66, and Bryan, 52, are charged with one count of interference with Arbery’s civil rights and with one count of attempted kidnapping for threatening him while he was jogging on a public street. 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.
All three were convicted in state court of murder on Nov. 24, 2020. All three are facing life in prison for that crime. A federal conviction on any of these charges would add additional time onto that sentence — and ensure they are branded racist killers, not simply convicted murderers.
Only one of the three defense lawyers, the man representing Greg McMichael, put witnesses on the stand to further the defense of his client. The other two lawyers told Judge Lisa S. Wood that they would not be mounting a defense.
American courts do not require defendants to put up any defense — instead the burden of guilt is put entirely on the prosecutor. Jurors will have to determine whether prosecutors succeeded in meeting that high bar linking the three men’s views of Black people with their actions on Feb. 23, 2020, when they chased and killed Arbery.
Attorney A.J. Balbo called two Satilla Shores residents to the stand on behalf of the elder McMichael and each testified to the fear of crime in the neighborhood, as well as to Greg’s concern for another suspicious person in the vicinity of their majority white subdivision. That person was a white vagrant.
The defense believes that bringing this testimony to court will show that the McMichaels were equally concerned with both white and Black strangers in the area of Satilla Shores and thus undermine the government’s case.
In opening statements, Balbo, said his client Greg 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.
By 3 p.m. the defense had rested and court had adjourned, after Judge Wood ruled against a defense motion to drop all charges against their clients.
On Monday, prosecutors and defense will make lengthy closing arguments to the jury.
The 12 jury members include 8 whites, 3 Blacks and 1 Hispanic and they come from all 43 counties which are included in the U.S. Southern District of Georgia, including Augusta, Dublin, Tybee and Statesboro.
Both the prosecutors and defense attorneys have 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 updates and observations on news from The Current staff.