Defense opens with self-defense argument

November 5, 2021


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 jogging 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 began giving their opening statements 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.

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. Bryan’s lawyer was expected to argue that Bryan was an innocent bystander.

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.

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.

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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.”

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Travis McMichael acted in self-defense, his attorney says in opening

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.”

Neighbors saw Black man jogging and grabbed their guns, prosecutor says

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 their neighbor William “Roddie” 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.

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.


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