Ahmaud Arbery’s Murder Is Putting Racism on Trial

Jury selection in the murder trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers begins Monday in Georgia. Here’s what you need to know.
October 18, 2021, 3:18pm
From left: Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan, all charged in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
From left: Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan, all charged in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. (Images via Glynn County)

When Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan appear in court this week over the alleged murder of Ahmaud Arbery, racism will go 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 his Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood on February 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 as self-defense. Bryan followed the McMichaels in his own vehicle and filmed the encounter. 

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Now, the trio’s trial, which will be 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At the time of the killing, Georgia’s now-repealed “citizen’s arrest” law allowed regular people to detain suspected criminals until law enforcement could arrive and carry out a proper arrest.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.  

“The defense is going to argue that their clients were properly exercising a citizen’s arrest and even if that were not the case, they were using some kind of reasonable self-defense that was proportional to the harm that they were perceiving at that time,” Roberta Robinson, an attorney in LaGrange, Georgia, told VICE News.

 “The prosecution is going to be crafty and allow the jury to hear the facts and the statements, and let them decide whether or not there was a racial component to this,” she added. 

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Georgia has 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 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. 

For jury selection, which begins Monday in Glynn County Court, officials issued an unprecedented 1,000 summons 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.”

Here’s what to expect in the coming weeks of the trial. 

The killing

During an afternoon jog, Arbery decided to stop to look at a home under construction. Gregory McMichael spotted Arbery while standing in his front yard and suspected that he’d been involved in a recent string of robberies in the neighborhood. 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. 

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.

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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 cars, and Bryan filmed the confrontation. After an exchange of words, Arbery and Travis got into a scuffle over the shotgun that 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.

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 Sunday, 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.”

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

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 Bob Rubin told the Atlanta Journal Constitution “He’s actually a man who’s lived a very good life, a life of helping others.”

And while the defense will likely focus on framing the three men as good Samaritans who tried to maintain order in the absence of police and only used deadly force when they had to, prosecutors will try to prove the opposite—that the defendants’ actions were malicious acts of murder, spurred by racism.

“Prosecutors are going to work hard to prove that this wasn’t something that can be justified,” Robinson said. “This was deliberate, planned, and intentional. And I think they’re going to use what happened in that moment, as well as what happened immediately after the fact, focusing on some of the conversations between the defendant and the dispatchers, some of the things that were said to conceal and clean up what happened in that moment.”

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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 evidence

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.

While most of the rulings have favored prosecutors, the defense is still holding out hope that the judge will dismiss the prosecution’s attempts to enter a vanity license plate attached to Travis’ pickup truck at the time of the shooting. The plates feature imagery of 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.

Additionally, the defense wants to limit the prosecution from using information regarding how many guns they own and what ways they used them during the trial. They also want to question jurors about their participation in pro-police reform protests last year, echoing a similar line of questioning used throughout voir dire in the trial of Derek Chauvin in March.

Jason Sheffield, a defense attorney for the McMichaels, and the Cobb County District Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Regardless of the outcome in state court, the three men who killed Arbery won’t be clear of consequences yet. They still face federal hate crime charges in the killing, including attempted kidnapping and interfering with Arbery’s rights.

Additionally, Jackie Johnson, the Glynn County district attorney who failed to mention her connection to the elder McMichael when recusing herself from the case, is facing six years in prison for violating her oath of office. Johnson failed to get reelected last November due in part to her malpractice in the Arbery case.

Correction 10/18 2:39 pm ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified who said they heard Travis McMichael call Ahmaud Arbery a racial slur. The text has been updated, and we regret the error.