BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The prosecution on Friday told jurors three white men made fatal assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery when they saw the 25-year-old Black man running in their neighborhood, with two grabbing their guns and pursuing Arbery as a third man joined the chase.
“We are here because of assumptions,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said in her opening statements in the trial over Arbery’s killing in this small coastal town early last year.
Defense attorneys gave opening statements for two of the defendants Friday afternoon. Attorneys argued that father and son Greg and Travis McMichael were trying to make a citizen’s arrest and that Travis shot Arbery in self-defense.
Prosecutors also called their first witness – a police officer who responded to the scene of the shooting. More witnesses were expected to take the stand Monday morning, when trial resumes.
The McMichaels and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are accused of murder and other crimes in Arbery’s death, who was shot three times at close range with a shotgun. Video of the incident, captured by Bryan, was released by a Georgia attorney two months later, spurring arrests and propelling growing national outrage against the treatment of Black Americans in the U.S.
Bryan’s attorney was expected to argue that Bryan was an innocent bystander. The attorney was expected to make his opening statement once the state finished presenting evidence.
Early Friday, Judge Timothy Walmsley swore jurors in and explained some key legal terms. The predominantly white jury – only one person of color was seated – was finalized this week even after Walmsley acknowledged “intentional discrimination” in the jury selection process.
We all have a unique perspective: Sign up for This is America, a weekly take on the news from reporters from a range of backgrounds and experiences
Outside the courthouse Friday, a small group of faith leaders gathered to pray and sing. The Rev. John Perry urged the community to remain unified despite the outrage over the lack of racial diversity on the jury.
“We’ve heard the shock we’ve heard the disappointment,” he said. “We want to encourage you to keep the faith and to continue to walk in a spirit of unity.”
Follow USA TODAY here for live coverage and refresh this page for updates.
The state called its first witness Friday afternoon, Glynn County Police Officer William Duggan, one of the first officers to respond to the scene.
Duggan told prosecutors that when he arrived, he saw Travis McMichael covered in blood. The officer asked McMichael if he was okay, prompting him to quickly reply, ‘No I’m not okay I just ‘effing’ killed somebody,” according to Duggan.
Prosecutors played dash camera video and graphic footage from Duggan’s body camera for the jurors. Duggan can be seen turning over Arbery’s body and attempting to apply pressure to his wound before saying: “There’s nothing I can do for this gentleman.”
Duggan said he decided there was nothing he could do because of massive blood loss, the lack of rise or fall of Arbery’s chest, and the gaping wound.
At one point in the body camera footage, Duggan said he recognizes one of the McMichaels.
Duggan told Jason Sheffield, one of Travis McMichael’s attorneys, that he could not resuscitate Arbery due in part to amount of blood loss and he observed Arbery’s eyes were not reacting to light.
During cross-examination, Duggan confirmed that Travis McMichael was “very upset” and pacing but cooperative at the scene. Sheffield noted the officer previously likened McMichael’s response was like the driver of a car that had just struck a child.
Greg McMichael’s attorney, Frank Hogue, spoke to jurors Friday afternoon and echoed many of the same statements made by his son’s attorney, Bob Rubin, presenting a picture of a neighborhood on edge and a father and son determined to detain a potential criminal.
Hogue said Greg McMichael, a retired investigator for the Brunswick district attorney’s office and a former officer for the Glynn County Police Department, saw Arbery running down the street “hauling ass” from the direction of a neighbor’s house.
Hogue said the neighborhood had witnessed “break-ins and burglaries and thefts over many months,” and that Greg McMichael believed Arbery to have “burglarized” the house. Hogue said Greg McMichael wanted to detain Arbery for police questioning.
“This case turns on intent, belief, knowledge, reasons for those beliefs,” Hogue said, adding Greg McMichael was sure Arbey was “the guy he had seen inside the house multiple times.”
Travis McMichael parked the truck at one point, dialed 911 and handed the phone to his father. Hogue said that’s when Travis McMichael got out of the car and Arbery moved toward him.
“He’s now in abject fear that he is about to witness his own son possibly get shot and killed in front of his own eyes,” Hogue said. The shooting was justified as self-defense, Hogue said.
Travis McMichael’s attorney, Bob Rubin, showed surveillance videos, played audio clips of calls to police and displayed photos of the fatal confrontation to jurors over the course of his hour-long opening statement.
Rubin said his client armed himself and pursued Arbery to “detain him for the police” because he and others felt a “duty and responsibility” to protect themselves and their community.
Rubin characterized Satilla Shores as a “neighborhood on edge,” saying Travis McMichael knew a man had previously entered neighbor Larry English’s house and that items had been taken when he encountered Arbery.
It was Arbery who had entered the house four times and was captured on surveillance footage prior to his death, according to Rubin.
Rubin said Travis McMichael saw Arbery near English’s home just 12 days before the shooting, and thought he was armed. Jurors heard a clip of the 911 call Travis McMichael made when he spotted someone near English’s home.
Rubin argued that, based on Travis McMichael’s 10 years of training in the U.S. Coast Guard, he had probable cause to believe Arbery was a burglar “under the totality of the circumstances.”
That’s why Travis McMichael grabbed his shotgun to pursue Arbery on the day he was killed, Rubin said. He emphasized to the jury that the McMichaels did not brandish their weapons when they first came into contact with Arbery and that Travis McMichael is the one who dialed 911.
“Before the first shot is fired, they call police,” Rubin said. “That is not evidence of intent to murder.”
Rubin said Travis McMichael’s training taught him to show his weapon as a way to deescalate violence and get compliance. Rubin showed still clips of the video jurors saw earlier, arguing that Arbery had a clear path to escape but instead came toward Travis “such that Travis has no choice but to fire his weapon in self-defense.”
While pantomiming the struggle, Rubin said Arbery started “pounding” Travis as his client tried to wrestle the gun away before firing two more times.
“He has no choice. If this guy gets his gun, he’s dead or his dad’s dead,” he said. “The only right verdict is not guilty on each and every count.”
In her 1 1/2-hour opening, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski showed jurors cellphone and surveillance video, played audio clips of calls to police and read parts of what the defendants told police. The evidence, she said, will show the defendants are guilty of felony murder and malice murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Dunikoski characterized the defendants’ actions on the day Arbery was killed as “driveway decisions” that were based on assumptions about what Arbery was doing in their neighborhood.
The first “driveway decision,” she said, was when Greg McMichae chose to go insidehis home and get his handgun after seeing Arbery running down the street. “He assumed the worst and has absolutely no immediate knowledge of any crime whatsoever,” Dunikoski said.
Dunikoski played a segment of Greg McMichael’s call to 911.
“What’s your emergency?” the dispatcher can be heard asking.
“There’s a Black male running down the street,” Greg McMichael can be heard saying.
The second driveway decision, Dunikoski said, was when Travis McMichael grabbed his shotgun and got into his truck. Greg joined him, squeezing on top of a child’s car seat.
“This is where it all starts, right at this moment, in that driveway. Five minutes later, Ahmaud Arbery is dead,” she said.
The third, she said, was when Bryan saw the McMichaels driving after Arbery and got in his own truck to follow. “He has absolutely no idea what’s been going on, and he joins the McMichaels in chasing down Mr. Arbery,” she said.
Dunikoski told jurors Bryan attempted to hit Arbery with his truck four times, leaving fibers from Arbery’s T-shirt and a palm print on the truck, as Arbery attempted to run away.
“He was trapped like a rat,” Dunikoski recited from Greg McMichael’s statement to police.
Arbery had nothing on him at the time – not even a cellphone to call for help, Dunikoski said.
Dunikoski emphasized Arbery committed no crimes. “Not one single defendant ever said, I was trying to arrest him, or mentioned what crime it is they actually thought he committed,” she said.
Video showing Ahmaud Arbery’s death played for jury
During her opening statements, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski played Bryan’s cell phone video of the killing, which Dunikoski said shows Travis McMichael getting out of the driver’s seat and shooting Arbery three times.
At least one juror had previously told the court she had not seen the video.
Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, left the courtroom before the video played, and Arbery’s mother, Wander Cooper-Jones, let out an emotional cry as it played.
As jurors broke for lunch, attorney Lee Merritt held a brief press conference outside the courthouse, commending Cobb County prosecutors for the opening statement presentation.
“The family has been affected by what they heard before today, but we are satisfied that the evidence is going forward,” Merritt told a crowd of damp reporters.
Cooper-Jones spoke briefly, saying she’d avoided the video for the past 18 months.
Judge acknowledges ‘intentional discrimination’ in jury selection
Opening statements follow a lengthy jury selection process complicated by the high-profile nature of the incident and many potential jurors’ familiarity with the people involved in the case.
The trial is taking place in Brunswick, a predominantly Black town with just 16,000 residents about 70 miles south of Savannah. The town sits in the mostly white Glynn County, where about 26% of residents are Black, according to Census Bureau data. Approximately 1 in every 62 registered voters in the county received jury summons.
After a woman was dismissed Thursday from the jury due to a medical issue, the panel now consists of 11 white women, three white men and one Black man, according to information available to reporters. Three of them are alternates. The court declined a request to provide the jurors’ racial self-identifications.
While Judge Walmsley agreed with prosecutors about likely discrimination, he ruled the defense’s move to strike eight Black potential jurors from the jury pool was legal.
“Quite a few African American jurors were excused through peremptory strikes exercised by the defense. But that doesn’t mean that the court has the authority to re-seat,” Walmsley said.
The nearly all-white jury is notable in a case that several high-profile figures have called a “lynching.” The McMichaels and Bryan face federal hate crime charges in the killing.
Georgia didn’t have hate crime legislation until June 2020, when Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill after Arbery’s death. Kemp also signed a repeal of the state’s citizen’s arrest law, which allowed private citizens to detain someone suspected of committing a felony in their presence.
Ahmaud Arbery family, supporters react to overwhelmingly white jury
Outside the Glynn County Courthouse on Thursday, supporters for Arbery’s family expressed mixed emotions about a jury with only one Black juror.
Lynn Whitfield, election protection director with the Transformative Justice Coalition, said she wasn’t surprised but not deterred.
“I think this is a perfect opportunity for the world to see that justice is not determined by the color of your skin,” said Whitfield, who has 30 years of experience as a criminal attorney.
Diane Jackson, Arbery’s aunt, expressed concerns that a nearly all-white jury would create pressure on the sole Black juror. She said she plans on following the trial from outside the courtroom.
Gregory Reed, who drove from Camden County to support the Arbery family, questioned how the jury could not better reflect the demographics of the county.
“I want to be wrong, but I don’t see how Ahmaud can get a fair trial with this jury,” he said.