Coastal Georgia community braces for second trial over Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

Opening statements expected Monday in federal hate crimes case

BRUNSWICK — The Rev. John Perry II remembers crying the first time he saw the video.

A young Black man was man shot dead in the street after running from three white men who chased him in pickup trucks. For Perry, then president of the Brunswick NAACP, the shaky cellphone footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder conjured up images of the South’s ugly past.

“I cried immediately because I felt sorry for him,” said Perry, who serves as senior pastor of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church just a few exits south on I-95. “Ahmaud Arbery was running for his life. He was trying to escape. And those men chased him down.”

The men responsible were convicted of murder during a state trial last year and sentenced in January to life in prison. Now, Glynn County residents are bracing for a second high-profile trial as Travis McMichael, his father Greg, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan face federal hate crimes charges.

Opening statements will begin Monday after prosecutors and defense attorneys exercise their allotted jury strikes, whittling the 64-member jury pool down to 12 trial jurors and four alternates.

The government’s evidence is expected to include incendiary text messages and social media posts by the defendants as federal prosecutors argue the trio chased down Arbery and killed him because he was Black.

Legal experts say proving such a motive could be challenging. It’s not enough to introduce evidence that they said racist things in the past, said attorney Page Pate, who has a law office in downtown Brunswick and has closely followed the case. “They have to prove that their racism led them to kill Ahmaud Arbery.”

There was a palpable sense of relief across this coastal Georgia community last year when a jury of 11 white people and one Black man returned guilty verdicts the day before Thanksgiving. Arbery’s Feb. 23, 2020, shooting thrust Glynn County into the national spotlight after Bryan’s cellphone video of the 25-year-old falling face down in the road was made public and shown over and over on the nightly news.

County police officers saw the video at the scene and interviewed the McMichaels and Bryan that afternoon, investigators testified in the state trial. But Glynn County police never made an arrest in the slaying. The defendants weren’t charged until 74 days later when the GBI took over the investigation.

“It was shocking,” Glynn County Commissioner Cap Fendig said of the shooting. “I was appalled by what happened and I was appalled that it appeared to have been kept quiet.”

Fendig, whose family has lived on St. Simons for generations, served two terms as commissioner in the early 2000s before getting elected again last year. He praised the way residents held peaceful demonstrations and demanded accountability.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“For our community, it brought us closer together,” he said. “This is a small town, and sometimes a crisis brings a community together rather than breaking them apart.”

There was tension across the county as residents anxiously awaited the verdicts in last year’s state trial. When the defendants were convicted, many here felt justice had finally been served.

“For some people, there was a sense of closure,” said Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who helped organize interfaith prayer circles outside the Glynn County courthouse during last fall’s trial. The group, Glynn Clergy for Equity, is planning additional gatherings during the federal trial to support anyone who might need it, she said.

“I’m anticipating that the content forthcoming in this trial will be much more difficult on a communal level,” said Bregman, who leads Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick. “Some of the stuff that comes out could be ugly.”

Arbery’s murder and the widespread criticism of local law enforcement’s handling of the case has brought about some change in Glynn County. In December, Jacques Battiste was sworn in as the county’s first Black police chief in the department’s 102-year history.

Battiste, a 57-year-old South Carolina native, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he hopes to bring about meaningful reforms to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

“It was an epiphany for not only Glynn County, but the rest of the country,” said Battiste, whose law enforcement history includes more than two decades with the FBI. “A systemic level of racism is still very much existent in today’s society.”

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Glynn police officers are now required to undergo implicit bias training, the chief said. Battiste also plans to bring in an outside group to review what went wrong with the department’s handling of the Arbery case.

“We are retooling this department,” he said. “We dropped the ball critically ... We should have been better trained and better prepared to deal with that situation, and we missed it.”

Most people summoned for jury selection had seen the video and knew about Arbery’s shooting death. Given the publicity surrounding the case, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood had summonses mailed to 1,000 people across all 43 counties comprising the Southern District of Georgia.

Still, the majority of potential jurors questioned at the start of the trial were familiar with at least some details of the case — and many of them held negative views of the defendants after repeatedly seeing Bryan’s cellphone video.

“The most graphic evidence in this case is the video, and just about every juror has seen it,” Greg McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, said in court Tuesday.

One woman wrote in her questionnaire that Arbery was hunted down by what she called “redneck vigilantes.” The white woman, who has a biracial son, also called Bryan “stupid” for filming the young man’s death instead of helping.

The McMichaels contended they were trying to conduct a citizen’s arrest because they suspected Arbery was responsible for a string of break-ins in their Satilla Shores neighborhood. But many potential jurors said they couldn’t understand why the defendants didn’t just call the police and let them handle it.

“The men appeared to have taken the law in their own hands,” said prospective Juror No. 325. She was deemed fair-minded enough to advance to the next round of jury selection on Thursday.

The atmosphere surrounding the early days of jury selection felt more subdued than the start of last year’s trial. There were no demonstrators outside chanting or carrying banners that read “I run with Maud.”

Still, concrete barricades were brought in around the federal courthouse and several parking spots remain blocked off along Brunswick’s main drag.

Barbara Arnwine, president and founder of the Washington D.C.-based Transformative Justice Coalition, expects scores of demonstrators as witnesses begin testifying. “We’re just waiting for trial to start,” she said. “We’ll be out there in force.”

As she did at last year’s trial, the attorney has been sitting in court each day alongside Arbery’s father.

“My family is still struggling because you can’t replace Ahmaud,” Marcus Arbery said Thursday. “He was one of a kind and we’re going to miss him for the rest of our lives.

Arnwine said this trial is historic even though all three men have already been convicted and sentenced. Prosecutors in the state case intentionally avoided focusing on racism before alluding to it during closing arguments, she noted. Here, such evidence will be front and center.

“In 99% of cases, there’s no racial evidence in the courtroom,” prosecutor Christopher Perras said during jury selection. “In this case there will be.”

Perry, the pastor, expects there will be an element of “shock and disgust” over some of the testimony given at trial.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“I believe all of the evidence is there to show that there was some level of racial hatred,” he said. “But one of the things we’re hoping that happens from this case is that we’ll have a greater level of sensitivity toward one another.”