‘Breakdown’ Ep. 9: Is Ahmaud’s imperfect past relevant?

Lawyers for the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery want the jury to hear about Arbery's past scrapes with the law and his mental health history. Episode 9 of the AJC's "Breakdown" podcast explores how Arbery's past could impact the trial. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Lawyers for the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery want the jury to hear about Arbery's past scrapes with the law and his mental health history. Episode 9 of the AJC's "Breakdown" podcast explores how Arbery's past could impact the trial. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Defense attorneys want jurors to know about Ahmaud Arbery’s past. Prosecutors say that would blame (and smear) the victim.

The ninth episode of this season of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdown podcast explores a request by defense attorneys who want to tell jurors about Ahmaud Arbery’s past scrapes with the law and his mental health issues.

The request is strongly opposed by prosecutors who are pursuing murder charges against Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and Roddie Bryan for Arbery’s killing on Feb. 23, 2020, just outside of Brunswick. The case has been assigned to the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office.

Dredging up a slain person’s troubled past has been widely criticized by civil rights activists, who say first you kill the man, then you assassinate his character.

It has happened in the case involving the death of George Floyd, with former police officer Derek Chauvin’s attorneys bringing up Floyd’s prior drug use and arrests.

In this episode, Bob Rubin and Jason Sheffield, lawyers for Travis McMichael, explain why they think jurors should know about Arbery’s past.

ExploreComplete coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery case

The dispute will come to a head in hearings scheduled for May 12 and 13 by Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley.

“Some of it has to do with Mr. Arbery’s intentions in the Larry English house that was under construction,” Rubin said. “And some of it has to do with what were his intentions with regard to his confrontation with Travis McMichael.”

Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020, in the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside of Brunswick. After Arbery had been seen entering the vacant English house, Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael armed themselves, jumped into a pickup truck and tried to chase Arbery down. Bryan, a neighbor, soon joined in the chase.

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In court filings, the McMichaels’ lawyers want Walmsley to let them tell the jury about 10 incidents of “prior bad acts” committed by Arbery. Two involve incidents that led him to plead guilty to felony charges. Others involve confrontations he had with law enforcement and some were incidents witnessed by neighbors or people at a local convenience store.

The defense also believes jurors should know about Arbery’s mental illness – schizoaffective disorder – as well. It explains why Arbery acted the way he did when the McMichaels began chasing him and why Travis McMichael had to act in self-defense when Arbery charged at him, Rubin and Sheffield said.

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In a court filing, Cobb prosecutors Jesse Evans and Linda Dunikoski strongly disagreed.

“Ahmaud Arbery was chased down by men with guns, in two pickup trucks, who were attempting to unlawfully detain him, even though they had not seen Mr. Arbery commit any crime,” they wrote. “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.”

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