Three Georgia men were scheduled to appear before a federal judge Tuesday on federal hate crime charges in the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot after being spotted running in the defendants’ neighborhood.
Arraignments before U.S. Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro were set for Tuesday afternoon as federal prosecutors moved ahead with their case, even with state murder charges still pending against the same defendants. A Georgia judge has set a trial in the state’s case for October and will hear pretrial motions later this week.
Greg McMichael and his adult son, Travis McMichael, armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after he ran past their home on Feb. 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
On April 28, the Justice Department charged both McMichaels and Bryan, who are all white, with violating Arbery’s civil rights as well as attempted kidnapping for using their trucks and guns to try to detain him. The McMichaels were also charged with using firearms in the commission of a crime.
The federal indictment says all three men illegally used force to “injure, intimidate and interfere with” the young Black man “because of Arbery’s race and color.” If convicted of interfering with Arbery’s rights, they could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Defense attorneys for the McMichaels and Bryan insist they committed no crimes. Lawyers for the McMichaels have said they chased Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar who had been recorded on video inside a nearby home under construction. They say Travis McMichael shot Arbery fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun.
Prosecutors say Arbery was merely out jogging and there’s no evidence Arbery stole anything from the home.
All three defendants have been jailed without bond since their arrests on state murder charges a year ago. They initially remained free for more than two months after Arbery was killed, but were swiftly charged after Bryan’s cellphone video became public and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley on Friday ordered that jury selection in the state case will begin Oct. 18, with the McMichaels and Bryan standing trial once a jury gets seated.
The judge has scheduled hearings on 12 pretrial motions for Wednesday and Thursday at the Glynn County courthouse in Brunswick, about 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah.
Walmsley must decide whether the trial jury should be allowed to hear unflattering evidence of Arbery’s prior run-ins with law enforcement as well as racist text messages and social media posts made or shared by the men who chased and killed him.
Defense attorneys for the McMichaels want the jury to know about 10 incidents from Arbery’s past, including that he was on probation at the time he was killed. Court records show Arbery had pleaded guilty to charges that he carried a gun onto a high school campus in 2013, a year after he graduated, as well as a shoplifting charge for stealing a TV from a Walmart store in 2017.
Defense lawyers argued in their written motion that those incidents bolster their argument that Arbery wasn’t an innocent jogger, but would “use running or jogging as cover to commit crimes” and that the McMichaels had good reason to suspect he was burglar.
Prosecutors say Arbery’s past is irrelevant considering none of the defendants knew him prior to the fatal chase or were aware of any of his past troubles.
“The only purpose for placing the ‘other acts’ of Mr. Arbery before a jury is to smear the character of Mr. Arbery and suggest that his murder was deserved,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have asked the judge to allow jurors to see text messages and social media posts that they contend show a lack of “racial goodwill” by all three defendants. They include a text message exchange from 2019 in which Travis McMichael twice uses a racist slur for Black people.
GBI agent Richard Dial has testified Bryan told investigators that Travis McMichael uttered a racist slur while standing over Arbery as he bled in the street. Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said his client denies making the remark.