BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Before Ahmaud Arbery was chased by three white men in pickup trucks and fatally shot on a residential street, the trio had expressed hostility toward Black people in text messages and social media posts riddled with racist slurs.
Does that history of bigoted remarks prove that Arbery was the victim of a hate crime?
A jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person was hearing closing arguments from prosecutors Monday morning in U.S. District Court, where the hate crimes trial over Arbery’s death began a week ago.
It’s been nearly two years since the 25-year-old Arbery fell dead from two shotgun blasts on Feb. 23, 2020, after a five-minute chase through the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside the port city of Brunswick. The slaying was captured in a graphic cellphone video that sparked outrage far beyond Georgia.
Basic facts of the case aren’t disputed. Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after he was spotted running past their home on a Sunday afternoon. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded the video of Travis McMichael firing the fatal shots at point-blank range.
The McMichaels and Bryan were all convicted of murder last fall in a Georgia state court. The U.S. Justice Department charged them separately in federal court with hate crimes, alleging that all three men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he’s Black. They are also charged with attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels face counts of using guns in the commission of a crime.
Regardless of the outcome of the hate crimes case, the McMichaels have been sentenced to life in prison without parole for their murder convictions. Bryan also received a life sentence, with parole possible only after he’s served at least 30 years.
The federal hate crimes trial is all about whether racism motivated the pursuit and killing of Arbery. Legal experts have said that’s tougher to prove than the crime of murder. The McMichaels and Bryan have all pleaded not guilty.
Defense attorneys have insisted that the trio pursued Arbery based on an earnest, though erroneous, suspicion that he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Before the day of the shooting, security cameras had recorded Arbery several times inside a home under construction a few doors down from the McMichaels’ house. Greg McMichael told police he recognized Arbery as he came running out of the same unfinished house the day of the shooting.
Still, those security videos showed Arbery taking nothing from the construction site. An officer told the McMichaels there was no evidence of him stealing. Bryan, who knew nothing of the security footage, told investigators he assumed Arbery had done something wrong when he ran past Bryan’s house with the McMichaels in pursuit.
Prosecutors will likely argue that the three men suspected Arbery because he was Black — and that their own past words show this prejudice was what triggered the deadly chase.
FBI agents uncovered roughly two dozen racist text messages and social media posts from the McMichaels and Bryan in the years and months preceding the shooting.
In 2018, Travis McMichael commented on a Facebook video of a Black man playing a prank on a white person: “I’d kill that f—-ing n—-r.” Greg McMichael had posted a Facebook meme saying white Irish “slaves” were treated worse than any race in U.S. history. And for several years on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bryan wrote messages in which he mocked the holiday honoring the civil rights leader.
Some witnesses testified they heard the McMichaels’ racist statements firsthand. A woman who served under Travis McMichael in the U.S. Coast Guard a decade ago said he made crude sexual jokes after learning she had dated a Black man and called her “n——r lover.” Another woman testified Greg McMichael had ranted angrily in 2015 when she remarked on the death of civil rights activist Julian Bond, saying, “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble.”
Defense attorneys didn’t dispute any of those statements. They rested their case Friday after calling a single witness.
In July 2019, Greg McMichael called police to report that he and Travis McMichael had confronted a homeless man living under a nearby bridge whom they suspected of committing thefts in their neighborhood. He didn’t mention the man’s race. On Friday, neighbor Lindy Cofer testified that she spotted a white man camped out under the same bridge sometime in 2019. She didn’t know if it was the same person the McMichaels had reported to police.