Nearly two years after the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Black man Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, opening arguments in the trial of the white men accused of chasing and murdering him on the street began Friday morning. Prosecutors wasted no time in framing the case as one centered on “assumptions and driveway decisions” by wannabe vigilantes who in fact were assailants, one of whom allegedly told Arbery, “Stop, or I’ll blow your fucking head off.”
What is not in dispute is that ex-cop Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan chased Arbery, who was known to jog in the area, in Satilla Shores, a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020. Travis McMichael is caught on a video filmed by Bryan firing the fatal shots.
According to Senior Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski, on the day of the shooting, the McMichaels and their neighbor chased Arbery for five minutes before the shots were fired. She took pains early on to bat away expected arguments by the defense team that the trio were trying to engage Arbery in a citizen’s arrest in connection with suspected break-ins in the area.
Instead, Dunikoski said, Arbery was “under attack” despite having done nothing wrong. Although Arbery was seen on video wandering around an empty construction in the area numerous times between Oct. 2019 and the date of his death, Dunikoski said, there was no proof that he ever stole anything from the site.
In his opening statements, Robert Rubin, an attorney representing Travis McMichael, said the case was about McMichael’s “duty and responsibility” to himself, his family, and his “quiet, scenic” neighborhood. The lawyer said McMichael, who served in the Coast Guard from 2007 to 2016, previously encountered Arbery visiting the construction site on Feb. 11, 2020, and saw him “lurking in the shadows” and later, allegedly reach in his waistband as if he had a weapon.
The incident, Rubin claimed, left McMichael on alert. During their second encounter on Feb. 23, 2020, Rubin added, McMichael only fired at Arbery because the man was rushing toward him after he got out of his truck and he had “no choice.”
“He did not want to encounter Ahmaud Arbery physically,” Rubin said of McMichael. “He was only trying to stop him for the police,” he said.
McMichael, his father, and Bryan have pleaded not guilty to multiple charges—including felony murder. If convicted, the three face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The incident, which took 73 days to produce an arrest despite damning video evidence and is marred with allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, prompted protests for racial justice. It also brings to light several controversial Civil War-era statues that appear to, at least in part, open the door for legal justification of the killing. And if the early procedural stages of the trial—highlighted by a nearly all-white jury in a county that is over a quarter Black—are any indication, the prosecution may be facing an uphill battle.
The gruesome killing has been described by many as a “lynching.” Meanwhile, prosecutors previously alleged the defense team used their allotted strikes—or objections—on Black jurors in an act of “racial discrimination.” The challenge was rejected by Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, who said his hands were tied by the law even as there was evidence of exactly that: intentional discrimination in the jury selection process.
However, on Friday morning, the prosecution was granted a small win when Walmsley ruled that they will be able to discuss a vanity Confederate license plate on Travis McMichael’s truck—the vehicle used to chase Arbery—the day of the killing. The plate depicts an old Georgia flag with a Confederate emblem on it. The flag was in use in the state from 1956 until it was officially replaced in 2001.
J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County district attorney, told The Daily Beast that the decision was likely a “tough call” for the judge.
He said that if prosecutors had charged McMichael with a hate crime, there would be no question as to the plate’s relevancy. But without a hate-crime charge, he said the judge would have to consider the effects the plate might have on defendants. (The three defendants face separate, federal hate-crimes charges in connection with the incident.)
Morgan said the flag being in evidence would likely help the prosecution paint a picture of the McMichaels as “rednecks from south Georgia who are racist.”
Despite the court’s and the defense’s attempts to keep race out of the case, Morgan told The Daily Beast that all went out the window when it was revealed that as Arbery lay on the ground with gunshot wounds, Travis McMichael called him a “fucking n-----,” according to an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).
“If that is coming in, then it is a race case,” Morgan said.
During opening statements, Senior Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski methodically detailed to jurors the circumstances that led to Arbery’s death, and how Satilla Shores residents were on high alert after a series of break-ins in the subdivision had been reported. Among them, according to prosecutors, was Gregory McMichael, a 64-year-old former police officer and retired investigator with the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office.
According to a police report, Gregory McMichael was in his front yard shortly after 1 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2020, when he saw Arbery “hauling ass” after leaving a home under construction. The elder McMichael told police after the incident he believed Arbery was the perpetrator of the recent break-ins in the area and went into his house to tell his son and grab his .357 Magnum.
“Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go,” Gregory said, according to the police report, which also notes that Travis grabbed his shotgun. They armed themselves, the McMichaels later said, because they “didn’t know if the male was armed or not.”
Authorities say that the father and son got into the pickup truck and chased after Arbery, where they unsuccessfully cut him off. At that time, their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, then joined the pursuit in his own truck and began to record the encounter.
During the chase, Gregory McMichael told police he yelled at Arbery, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” before eventually pulling up the truck beside him; his son exited the vehicle. According to the McMichaels, Arbery “began to violently attack Travis and the two men then started fighting over the shotgun, at which point Travis fired a shot and then a second later there was a second shot.”
Rubin, the defense lawyer, said Friday that Travis McMichael never once pointed his weapon at Arbery during the chase and that their only intention was to “detain” him for the police.
But according to Dunikoski, she said her team will show proof that at one point during the chase, Gregory McMichael yelled, “Stop, or I’ll blow your fucking head off” to Arbery.
Bryan’s now-infamous footage showed Arbery was shot in the chest. The footage also showed that while Travis McMichael and Arbery were in a scuffle, Arbery was shot another two times.
Prosecutors allege that Glynn County police officers arrived at the scene several minutes after the shooting but did not provide assistance to Arbery despite body-camera footage showing he was still alive and trying to breathe.
However, Glynn County Police Officer William Duggan, the first witness to testify in the case, said he was the second cop to arrive on scene, and when he went over to Arbery to tend to him, he saw that the man had no pulse.
A massive amount of blood was also pouring out of a “gaping wound” in Arbery’s chest, Duggan said, adding, “There was nothing I could do for him.”
Duggan said that when he first saw Travis McMichael on the scene, he was covered in blood. Duggan said he asked McMichael if he was okay and that the man responded, “No, I’m not okay. I just fucking killed somebody.”
“He had no choice,” Gregory McMichael is heard telling officers multiple times in other footage previously released, when speaking about his son Travis. The father was seemingly setting up the defense that his son was evoking his right under the state’s so-called Stand Your Ground law, which allows Georgians to use deadly force if they believe they are at risk of bodily injury or death.
After the shooting, McMichael allegedly called ex-Brunswick District Attorney Jacquelyn Lee Johnson, whose office he had previously worked for. In September, Johnson was criminally charged for allegedly stopping two officers with the Glynn County Police Department from arresting McMichael after the shooting and obstructing the initial investigation of the case.