The Killing of Ahmaud Arbery: What We Know About the Murder Trial

Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan are facing nine charges each, including murder, in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
Ahmaud Arbery
An activist protesting holds up a photo of Ahmaud Arbery who was killed in Georgia in February 2020. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As the trial unfolds for Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan over their alleged murder of Ahmaud Arbery, racism is on trial right along with them.
The three white men—who are facing nine charges each, including murder and false imprisonment—insist they thought the 25-year-old Black man was a burglar as he jogged through their Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020. So Travis, 35, and his father, Gregory, a 65-year-old retired cop, grabbed their guns, followed Arbery in their truck, and eventually shot and killed him, in what they claim was self-defense. Bryan followed the McMichaels in his own vehicle and filmed the deadly encounter. 

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Now, the trio’s trial, which is being broadcast for anyone to watch, will determine if that’s true—and whether they’ll spend their lives in prison because of it. 

At the time of the killing, Georgia’s now-repealed “citizen’s arrest” law allowed regular people to detain suspected criminals until law enforcement could arrive and carry out a proper arrest. But several details of the incident—like Travis’ alleged use of a racial slur, as well as the defendants’ past behavior—indicate that bigotry may have motivated the killing more than their intentions of enforcing the law when they spotted Arbery. 

Georgia already had its own reckoning in the wake of Arbery’s death, which set off protests across the country. The state put an end to citizen arrests earlier this year, and local legislators finally recognized racially motivated violence as a hate crime in the mostly conservative Southern state. 

But for many Black Americans, those changes will mean nothing if the criminal justice system doesn’t punish those who used the old law to justify killing an innocent man.

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The three men each face five counts of malice and felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment, and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony. If convicted of murder, they face up to life in prison.

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery

During a Sunday-afternoon jog in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Glynn County, Arbery decided to stop to look at a home under construction. Gregory McMichael spotted Arbery while standing in his front yard and suspected he’d been involved in a recent string of robberies in the area. Gregory and Travis then armed themselves with a pistol and a shotgun, respectively, and jumped into their vehicle to carry out a citizen’s arrest. 

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CORRECTS YEAR OF ARBERY'S DEATH TO 2020 INSTEAD OF 2021 - Defendant Travis McMichael stands as the jury enters the room at the Glynn County Courthouse on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021 in Brunswick, Ga. McMichael is charged with the February 2020 shooting death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (Sean Rayford/Pool Photo via AP)

Citizen’s arrest laws in the U.S. date back more than a century, when archaic forms of communication meant it was far more common that a suspected criminal would have to be detained by regular people until the authorities finally arrived. In modern times, however, when cops and sheriffs are typically a phone call and a few minutes’ drive away, it’s easy to argue these laws no longer serve a purpose—and can instead give justice-oriented, typically armed citizens an excuse to play cop with the full backing of the law.

Many pro–police reform Americans would argue that’s exactly what happened the day Arbery was killed. 

After following Arbery and asking him to stop and talk, the three men blocked the young Black man’s path with their trucks, and Bryan filmed the confrontation. After an exchange of words, Arbery and Travis got into a scuffle over the shotgun Travis was holding, and he fired three shots, hitting the Black man twice in the chest, according to his autopsy. A state investigator said that Bryan told him he heard Travis call Arbery a “fucking n------” as he lay in the street dying after the shooting.

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In the aftermath of the shooting, prosecutors did little to bring justice to the Arbery family. Glynn County’s district attorney recused herself from the case but failed to mention that her old colleague, Gregory McMichael, had sought her advice after the shooting. Another Georgia district attorney who presided over the case next described the crime as “justifiable.” Eventually, thanks to public outcry, state investigators stepped in and quickly brought charges against the accused.

“They have to make this right so this world can go forward,” Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father, said at a rally on October 17, according to local news outlet WCSC-5. “You got people who didn’t even know my son, but when they saw what happened to him, they’ve been here because they know it was wrong.”

As attention to Arbery’s death ramped up, details about his trespassing of the property became public. The owner of the vacant home said that while Arbery was caught on surveillance video at the empty home two months before his death, he was likely just getting some water. And he wasn’t the only person to stop in at that site. At least 11 other videos from the period of October 2019 to February 2020 show women, men, and children there too, according to CNN.

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The defense, however, has insisted that the McMichaels did not chase after Arbery because he was Black.

“He is not a stereotype, he is not a caricature of a Southern vigilante racism that he’s been made out to be,” Travis McMichael’s attorney Robert Rubin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He’s actually a man who’s lived a very good life, a life of helping others.”

Pre-trial

Several pre-trial rulings will play an important part in how the two sides argue their cases. In August, a Glynn County Superior Court judge ruled that Arbery’s previous run-ins with law enforcement can’t be used in the trial to prove any of his motives the day he was killed.

Earlier this month, that same judge ruled that the defense also can’t introduce evidence of Arbery’s mental health records, as it would violate Arbery’s right to medical privacy, even in death.

After a protracted fight, the judge also ruled that prosecutors can introduce, as evidence, a vanity license plate attached to Travis McMichael’s pickup truck at the time of the shooting. The plates feature Georgia’s old state flag, which includes a depiction of the Confederate flag. The vehicle was also purchased after January 2020, meaning the vanity plates were placed there somewhat recently—and remained there—at the time of the shooting.

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Jury selection

For jury selection, which began October 18  in Glynn County Court, officials issued an unprecedented 1,000 summonses in search of the 12 potential jurors and four alternates. That’s ten times what a county would typically issue, according to Annie Deets, an adjunct professor of trial advocacy at Emory University Law School.

“They want to make sure that they have the best group of jurors to hear the particular facts of this case,” Deets said. “The fact that you have three defendants and a victim who are all members of this community, the chances that people who are summoned for jury duty either know them, or know a family member, or something like that, are pretty high.

During questioning, several jurors did flag having close ties to either the defendants and their family, the Arbery family, or other officials closely associated with the case. Other prospective jurors appeared to already have strong opinions about the case: One referred to Gregory McMichael as the “lead dog” in the chase that led to Arbery’s death.

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Gregory McMichael attends the jury selection in his trial together with Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, charged with the February 2020 death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, at the Gwynn County Superior Court, in Brunswick, Ga., Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (Octavio Jones/Pool Photo via AP)

To make matters more complicated, a design flaw in the Glynn County court website provided prospective jurors an easy and overtly obvious way to look at suppressed evidence in the trial, including Arbery’s mental health history. The error has since been fixed. 

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Even as jury selection came to a close, controversy still hung over the process. By the end, only a single Black juror had been selected to serve on the panel alongside 11 white people. Prosecutors flagged the issue in court, accusing the defense of using their strikes to prevent Black people from serving. While the judge agreed there was “intentional discrimination” in the process, he said there was little he could do about it.

“All the defense needs to do is provide that legitimate, nondiscriminatory, clear, reasonably specific and related reason,” Judge Walmsley said about reasons for striking a juror.

Opening statements

When opening statements began nearly three weeks into the start of the trial, prosecutors told jurors that a series of baseless, on-the-fly decisions made by the McMichaels and Bryan ultimately caused Arbery’s death. And racism was at the center of them.

“All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions. Not on facts, not on evidence,” District Attorney Linda 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.”

For example, when Gregory McMichael called 911, he never mentioned that a crime had been committed and simply said there was a Black man running down the street, according to Dunikoski .

The three men’s defense attorneys, on the other hand, insist that their client’s actions had nothing to do with race. They say the men were just being good Samaritans and attempting to stop Arbery—whom 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.)

“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.”

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Law enforcement testimony

The first five witnesses called to the stand after opening statements were all members of law enforcement. 

On the first full day of witness testimony, jurors heard from Sgt. Sheila Ramos, a Glynn County investigator who snapped photos of the crime scene, including graphic images of bloodstains and Arbery’s gunshot wounds. The images prompted Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., to leave the courtroom. 

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William "Roddie" Bryan looks on during the trial of himself and Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael, who are charged with the February 2020 death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, at the Gwynn County Superior Court, in Brunswick, Ga., Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (Octavio Jones/Pool Photo via AP)

Prosecutors also called Ricky Minshew, the first police officer to arrive at the scene of the crime. Instead of providing aid to Arbery, however, he called for backup and worked to preserve the crime scene. In his mind, Arbery was already dead.

On the second full day of witness testimony, a Glynn County police officer and detective spoke about what Gregory McMichael told them at the scene of Arbery’s death—and in the hours that followed. Although it’s clear he thought Arbery was a threat, he didn’t show much remorse and never made it clear he thought Arbery was committing a crime.

“‘To be perfectly honest with you, if I could have got a shot at the guy, I would have shot him myself,” the elder McMichael told one officer, according to a transcript read in court of his body camera footage.

Gregory also told a detective that he threatened to shoot Arbery before his son ultimately did. 

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“I said, ‘Stop, I’ll blow your fucking head off,’ or something,” Gregory told the detective during an interview at Glynn County police headquarters. “I was trying to convey to this guy we were not playing.”

Neighbor testimony

During opening statements, attorneys for Travis and Gregory McMichael said the two men saw their neighbor, Matthew Albenze, motion toward Arbery as he left the vacant property, and said that that was one of the many reasons why the father and son decided to follow him in their truck. 

But Albenze testified that he never signaled to the McMichaels. 

“At any point in time, did you call Greg or Travis McMichael?” Dunikoski, the prosecutor representing the state of Georgia, asked Albenze.

“No,” Albenze said.

“Did you communicate with them in any way, shape, or form?”

“No,” Albenze said again.

Albenze, who first called the county’s non-emergency line after seeing Arbery on the property, also testified that he deeply regrets what happened to Arbery. 

“I thought maybe if he hadn’t seen me, he wouldn’t have run away. I don’t know,” he said. 

“And it still weighs heavy on your heart?” one of the defense attorneys asked.

“Yes,” Albenze said.

This page was originally published on November 8, 2021. It’s been updated for improved clarity on the topic.

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