(Note offensive language in paragraphs 10, 15.)
By Rich McKay and Brad Brooks
BRUNSWICK, Ga. – A federal prosecutor in Georgia said on Monday that three white men on trial for hate crimes in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, had a long history of using racial epithets and undoubtedly killed him because of his race.
Arbery did nothing to deserve his fate, Barbara Bernstein, deputy chief of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, told the U.S. District Court in the coastal town of Brunswick in her opening statement.
Gregory McMichael, 66, his son Travis McMichael, 36, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, were convicted last year of shooting dead Arbery after chasing him in pickup trucks through their mostly white neighborhood because they wrongly suspected he may have been guilty of a crime.
Unlike last year’s state trial, the federal hate-crimes trial will focus more squarely on the motive for the killing and whether the defendants targeted Arbery because he was Black, as the prosecution alleges.
Arbery’s killing was one of several murders of Black men and women, often at the hands of police, that helped spark recent racial justice protests around the world. The federal trial of Arbery’s killers is one of the first in which those who carried out a high-profile killing are facing a jury in a hate-crime trial. “Most of this trial will be about why the defendants did what they did,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said if Arbery, an avid runner, had been white, he would have been able to go for an afternoon jog unmolested and “been home in time for Sunday supper.”
“Instead, he went out for a jog, and ended up running for his life. Instead, he ended up bleeding to death, alone and scared, in the middle of the street,” she told the court.
As Bernstein talked to the jury, Arbery’s parents sat in the front of the public gallery looking somber and shaking a little. His father, Marcus Arbery, sighed as Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, put her arm on Marcus Arbery’s shoulders.
Bernstein cited several messages posted on Facebook and elsewhere in which all three men used racial epithets.
She especially highlighted the words of Travis McMichael – who shot Arbery – who she said had made violent and racist statements on social media, including calling Black people “monkeys” and “subhuman savages.” He had also told a friend that he was glad to have left the Coast Guard because he no longer had to work with or be around Black people, she added.
She said the jury would hear from a witness how Gregory McMichael “went on a racist rant about Black people.”
Bernstein said Bryan used a racial epithet in an online post after learning four days before Arbery’s death that his daughter was dating a Black man.
USING THE N-WORD
Defense attorneys for the three men said in their opening statements that they found their clients’ use of racial epithets deeply offensive, but emphasized it was no reason to convict them. They said the men were not motivated by Arbery’s race.
“I can’t stand before you and say my client has never used the ‘N-word’,” said Amy Copeland, the attorney for Travis McMichael. “He did. He left a digital footprint over several years.”
But Copeland said Travis McMichael had chiefly been concerned with cases of theft that had left his neighborhood on high alert when he decided to chase down Arbery.
Trial experts told Reuters that the challenge for the prosecutors will be to back up the evidence of racist utterances with evidence that on the day of the shooting the three men were motivated by racial animus.
The court is scheduled to hear from Special Agent Richard Dial of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who has previously testified that Bryan told his office that Travis McMichael uttered a racial slur as Arbery lay dying.
Bryan’s attorney, Pete Theodocion, tried to distance his client from the McMichaels, saying that when he joined the McMichaels in chasing Arbery he assumed “he (Arbery) did something wrong, but not because of his race.”
Travis McMichael said at a hearing last month that he was willing to plead guilty to attacking Arbery because of his “race and color” after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors.
But he changed his mind after Judge Lisa Wood rejected the agreement, saying she could not accept it because it bound her to sentencing McMichael to 30 years in federal prison before he was handed back to the state of Georgia to serve out the rest of his life sentence for murder.
She said she needed more information to know whether a 30-year sentence was just, and cited emotional testimony from Arbery’s family.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Brunswick, Georgia, and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Ross Colvin, Alistair Bell and Matthew Lewis)