BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Prosecutors on Friday described how three men made fatal assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery when they saw him jogging in their neighborhood, grabbed their guns and chased him down before fatally shooting the 25-year-old Black man.
Defense attorneys were set to give their opening arguments Friday afternoon in the trial over Arbery’s killing in this small coastal town early last year. The defense was expected to argue 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.
Video of the incident, captured by one 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, Superior Court 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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Neighbors saw Black man running and grabbed their guns, prosecutor says
In an hour-and-a-half statement, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski showed jurors cell phone 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 them 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 cell phone 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 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.
‘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.
On Thursday, Walmsley ruled on a number of issues about what evidence the jury will be allowed to hear. The judge prevented the defense from bringing in a use-of-force expert and having a psychiatrist testify on how the presence of a small amount of THC found in Arbery’s system may have affected his behavior.
Walmsley added Friday that jurors cannot be told Arbery was on probation but can view a photograph of the vanity plate on the pickup truck the McMichaels used that day. He previously ruled a 2018 mental illness diagnosis was inadmissible.
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.