Lawyers for Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers Really Want to Stay Away From Race

During opening statements in the murder trial against Ahmaud Arbery's killers, defense attorneys avoided mentioning race almost entirely.
Gregory McMichael attends the jury selection in his trial together with Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, at the Glynn County Superior Court, on October 27, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia.
Gregory McMichael attends the jury selection in his trial together with Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, at the Glynn County Superior Court, on October 27, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia. (Photo by Octavio Jones-Pool/Getty Images)

During opening statements in the murder trial against Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, attorneys on both sides tried to convince the jury what was going through the minds of father and son, Travis and Greg McMichael, and their friend William “Roddie” Bryan when they chased after the 25-year-old Black man they saw jogging through their neighborhood.

Prosecutors kicked off opening statements in Glynn County Court Friday morning, and for just over 90 minutes, District Attorney Linda Dunikoski argued the McMichaels and Bryan made a series of “driveway decisions”—baseless, racist, and ultimately inaccurate assumptions about Arbery that directly led Travis to shoot and kill him. 


The three men’s defense attorneys, on the other hand, insist that their client’s actions had nothing to do with race. The white men were just being good Samaritans and attempting to stop Arbery—who they suspected of being a local burglar based on facts—until police could arrive. (That was allowed, at the time, under the state’s “citizen’s arrest” law.) 

“There’s absolutely no evidence in this case that anyone was making an arrest,” Dunikoski said. “What’s your emergency? There’s a Black man running down the street. No one said ‘I was making a citizen’s arrest today.’ Not one single person used those words. No one said ‘I was trying to arrest him for the crime of,’ fill in the blank. No one said that.”

The McMichaels and Bryan are facing nine charges each, including murder and false imprisonment. If found guilty, they face up to life in prison.

“Duty and Responsibility”

When they saw Arbery, Travis’ attorney, Robert Rubin, and Gregory’s attorney, Franklin Hogue, argued that their clients and co-defendant Bryan responded based solely on the evidence before them and nothing else.

“This case is about duty and responsibility,” Rubin said at the start of his hour-long statement.

Travis, with his near decade in the U.S. Coast Guard, and Gregory, as a former investigator for the district attorney’s office and a former Glynn County police officer, were uniquely positioned to act when they had probable cause to believe Arbery committed a crime. 

In the months leading up to the shooting, the Satilla Shores community Facebook group and the local authorities were made aware of $2,500 worth of items that had gone missing from a neighbor’s vacation home that was under construction. Arbery was jogging near that home. 


“The neighborhood was on edge, so much so that the behaviors began to change by the neighbors,” Rubin said.

The homeowner, who placed cameras inside the unfinished home, also gave permission to neighbors to act if they saw suspicious activity. Hogue also said during his 20-minute opening statement that local police informed the homeowner that Gregory’s background in law enforcement made him a good person to reach out to if there was any trouble on the property.

And Travis had noticed Arbery visiting the home before his death, on the night of Feb. 11. The younger McMichael fled home, called the cops telling them that he saw Arbery reach toward his waist as if reaching for a gun. He’d return moments later to where he saw Arbery, only to find another armed neighbor and a police officer. Rubin said the officer didn’t reprimand the two men for trying to help but thanked them.

So when the McMichaels and Bryan saw the same man return to the unoccupied home the day of the shooting, Rubin argued the trio were trying, once again, to help.

“We're not contending there was a crime committed in their presence. But there was probable cause to believe a felony had been committed and that this man was attempting to escape or flee,” Rubin said. “That's why citizen’s arrest is in this case.”

Defense attorney’s also argued that he men’s repeated efforts to stop Arbery for questioning were ignored—and that Travis brandishing his shotgun was a last-ditch effort to de-escalate the situation. When Arbery instead ran toward him, Travis fired in self defense, fearing Arbery was going to harm him.

“It’s tragic that Ahmaud Arbery lost his life,” Rubin said. “But at that point, Travis McMichael is acting in self defense. He did not want to encounter Ahmaud Arbery physically. He was only trying to stop him for the police.”


“Driveway Decisions”

In the crux of her opening statement on behalf of the state, Dunikoski laid out Gregory’s, Travis’ and Bryan’s “driveway decisions,” a series of assumptions made because they saw Arbery, a Black man, running away from them.

The first of these assumptions came when Gregory first saw Arbery running down the street, Dunikoski said. Despite having no idea that Arbery had been to the property before, the elder McMichael ran inside his home, grabbed his revolver and alerted his son, who grabbed his shotgun. The two then jumped in their pickup truck in pursuit.

Gregory even told the cops that Arbery must have been running from something or hurt someone, according to transcripts of his conversation with police presented in court.

“Gregory assumed the worst: this unknown stranger, this Black man who’s running down the street, has a gun on him,” Dunikoski said. “He's assumed the worst and has absolutely no immediate knowledge of any crime whatsoever.”

The elder McMichael doubled down on that racist assumption later on, when he called 911, too, according to prosecutors.

“Greg McMichael has now made the 911 call. Mr. Arbery’s been attacked. Mr. Arbery’s been yelled at. Mr. Arbery’s life has been threatened,” Dunikoski said, showing the jury stills of the moments just before the shooting. “And what does he say? This is the emergency ladies and gentlemen: I’m out by Satilla Shores and there’s a Black man running down the street.”

The second assumption came when Travis saw a neighbor looking out and pointing toward where Arbery had run. The McMichaels assumed the neighbor’s gesture was confirmation of Arbery’s wrongdoing, according to Dunikoski, but never confirmed it.

Bryan made the third assumption when he saw the McMichaels driving after Arbery and decided on his own and without fully understanding the situation, that he should join in and assist them in the chase.

The three men would spend the next five minutes repeatedly trying to intersect Arbery’s path and cut him off. And according to police evidence, Bryan got so dangerously close to Arbery with his truck during the pursuit that the young Black man touched the truck, leaving a palm print and fibers from his white shirt on the vehicle before continuing to flee.

Prosecutors argue the McMichael’s worsened the entire situation by pursuing and threatening Arbery with their vehicles.

“All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions. Not on facts, not on evidence,” Dunikoski said. “And they made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man’s life. And that is why we are here.”