Bryan ‘never intended to harm Mr. Arbery,’ attorney tells jury

More than 100 Black pastors expected in Brunswick on Thursday

BRUNSWICK - The attorney representing one of three men charged in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing delivered his opening statements Wednesday morning, telling jurors that William “Roddie” Bryan never meant for the 25-year-old to end up dead.

Kevin Gough elected to reserve his openings until the prosecution finished presenting its case. The state rested on Tuesday after eight days of testimony from 23 witnesses.

Bryan, his client, recorded the widely shared cellphone video of Arbery’s killing. The 52-year-old faces murder and other charges along with neighbor Greg McMichael, who initiated the chase, and his son Travis McMichael, who fired the deadly shotgun blasts.

Travis McMichael took the stand Wednesday afternoon as the defense’s first witness, testifying he faced a “life or death situation” when he killed Arbery.

The McMichaels were arrested on May 7, 2020, more than two months after Arbery’s death and two days after the GBI took over the case. Bryan was charged two weeks later after sitting for lengthy interviews with GBI agents, allowing them to search his cellphone, and participating in a “re-enactment” of the route he drove the afternoon of the shooting.

ExploreFull coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery case and the verdicts

The three defendants contend they were trying to detain Arbery, who they suspected of entering a home under construction in their Satilla Shores neighborhood. Greg McMichael and his son chased Arbery after seeing him run past their house. Bryan joined in the chase moments and prevented Arbery from leaving the neighborhood, according to GBI testimony.

On Wednesday, Gough said Bryan joined in the pursuit to help his neighbors.

“Mr. Bryan knows the difference between running to something and running from something,” Gough said Wednesday. “But in this case there’s really no mystery. When Arbery passes Mr. Bryan’s house, with all due respect, we know why.”

The widely shared cellphone video is the central piece of evidence in the case, and Gough said his client was simply trying to get Arbery on video so he could give the footage to police.

“In the final moments before Mr. Arbery’s tragic death, the evidence, the video shows Mr. Bryan’s efforts to track Mr. Arbery’s movements,” Gough said, “to keep him in view.” He also said there is “scant evidence” suggesting his client tried to “conceal or minimize his involvement” in the case, despite a GBI agent’s testimony to the contrary.

Agent Richard Dial testified Tuesday that Bryan wasn’t just a “witness” to Arbery’s shooting, but an active participant in the pursuit that resulted in him lying dead in the road as Bryan filmed from his pickup truck.

“He was still pursuing Mr. Arbery, trying to box him in between two vehicles,” Dial said.

Gough said his client regrets what happened to Arbery on that Sunday afternoon.

“The evidence will show that Mr. Bryan did not intend to harm Mr. Arbery, never intended to harm Mr. Arbery — that he regretted Mr. Arbery being injured,” Gough told the jury. “And looking back, he wished he would have done more or done something better or different so Mr. Arbery would not have been shot.”

If Bryan wanted to minimize his involvement in the case, Gough argued, “that cellphone could have wound up in the marsh long before anybody even realized it mattered.”

Gough has been widely criticized for his repeated calls to have Black pastors banned from the public gallery during the high-profile, racially charged trial.

He told the judge last week “we don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” following an appearance by the Rev. Al Sharpton. He renewed those calls Monday when he asked the judge to have the Rev. Jesse Jackson watch the proceedings on a livestream in the overflow room next door.

Before delivering his opening statements on Wednesday, Gough again objected to Jackson’s presence at the back of the courtroom.

“This morning, I believe, as much as I like to see him but regret the circumstances, the honorable right Rev. Jesse Jackson is here yet again in the back of the courtroom,” Gough said before asking the judge for a mistrial. “There has been no indication from the state or anyone else that he is here in his capacity as a minister, given his remote location from this area.”

His latest motion for a mistrial was denied.

In response to Gough’s remarks in court, activists have called for 100 Black pastors from across the nation to descend on the Glynn County Courthouse on Thursday morning.

Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, also raised concerns that having high-profile civil rights leaders in the courtroom could jeopardize the defendants’ right to a fair trial.

“I think it’s been made abundantly clear that the people who are joining the Arbery family are part of a larger conversation that is happening nationally, that has been funneled down into the community,” he said. “They represent a national conversation that is for the conviction of the defendants. And for that reason I think that they should not be present in the courtroom where the jury can see them and be reminded of the national conversation.”